“I prefer to look West instead of East,” Mr. Petrucco said of his project, planned for an area near an old ironworks factory that looms above the pier envisioned for use by the Chinese. He added that both projects would take years to build and worried that all the American opposition and controversy surrounding the Belt and Road agreement would poison the waters for his proposal.
“It’s sad,” he said, “but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Roberto Dipiazza, the mayor of Trieste, said that the United States could scuttle the deal if it really wanted to. He said that his city had much to gain from closer ties to China, but that the Chinese had even more to gain from his port’s deep harbors, customs benefits and rail yards.
“We will find a point of agreement between China and the U.S.,” he said, showing off a Make America Great Again cap signed by President Trump that he had received as a gift. Italy, he noted, was caught “in the middle.”
Some of Trieste’s most entrenched political players think Italy is compromised by such a position.
Giulio Camber, a veteran lawmaker considered by many to be the political boss of Trieste, said he no longer had any interests in the port, and that his opposition to the deal was motivated by his distrust of what he called China’s Communist dictatorship.
As light sliced in through the closed curtains of his office, illuminating his cigarette smoke, gilded furniture and oil paintings, Mr. Camber said the Chinese were behind many of the Turkish businesses exporting goods into the port. Beijing, he said, would feast on the Italians just as they did on the Greeks before them.
“They are the weakest,” he said of the Mediterranean countries.
Mr. Camber dismissed the local and national assurances about Chinese expansion, saying that Beijing would easily outmaneuver officials in Rome.
“It’s like the world champion in chess playing with a couple of guys who play for fun at the Caffè Degli Specchi,” he said, referring to the famous cafe in Trieste’s main square, the Piazza Unità d’Italia. “You can’t imagine what the world’s best chess player is up to.”