More than seven centuries after a 17-year-old Marco Polo set off from Venice on a voyage that would culminate at the court of Kublai Khan, the Italian city continues to tout itself as the westernmost point of the ancient Silk Road, China’s gateway into Europe. Now it faces some competition from Trieste, an increasingly busy port city on the northeastern edge of Italy, whose contributions to commerce and culture included popularizing coffee by importing, roasting, and shipping the beans northward, to Vienna’s cafes and beyond.
Today, Trieste is eagerly preparing to open its port to China as a European point of entry for the “Belt and Road” initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure spending project designed to bolster sales of Chinese-made goods and services around the world. China and Italy are expected to sign a preliminary agreement in Rome during a state visit by President Xi Jinping scheduled for March 22. Italy will become the 124th nation to sign on, but it will be the first in the Group of Seven, in defiance of loud warnings from the U.S.—and more quietly voiced concerns from some quarters of Europe—that Belt and Road is first and foremost a vehicle for Beijing to expand its sphere of influence.