After the Italian ports of Genoa and Trieste joint the China’s new Silk Road project, the attention turns to Malta’s Valletta Grand Harbour and the Port of Marsaxlokk.

Malta was amongst the first European countries to sign in November 2018 a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China for investment and projects.

The new Silk Road (part of the Belt and Road initiative also known as One Belt, One Road, or OBOR) is a Chinese economic strategy to seek better access for Chinese-made products in European markets, which includes acquiring stakes in ports and other transport facilities, and cooperation agreements with countries along the Silk Road routes.

The state owned COSCO Shipping Ports and China Merchants Port Holdings have acquired stakes in: Port Said, Egypt; Casablanca and Tangier, Morocco; Istanbul, Turkey; Piraeus, Greece; Bilbao and Valencia, Spain; Marseille, Nantes, Le Havre and Dunkirk, France; Antwerp and Bruges, Belgium, Rotterdam and the Netherlands.

In November 2018, Malta’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion Carmelo Abela signed a MOU with the Chairman of the Chinese Reform National Development Commission He Lifeng in the presence of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in Shanghai, China.

This agreement aimed to provide a framework for future investments, projects and cooperation in commerce, tourism and financial services between the two countries. However, the MOU has fallen short of agreeing a direct role for Malta in the new Silk Road.

Malta is an archipelago in the central Mediterranean located between Sicily and the North African coast a location that would appear ideal for transporting goods to the Western Mediterranean which arrive via the Suez Canal. The main international ports in Malta are the Valletta Grand Harbour and the Port of Marsaxlokk. The second largest island is Gozo has one Port Mgarr.

Maritime activity is centred around the two main Maltese ports, Valletta and Marsaxlokk, although a number of other ports occasionally host ships on international voyages, usually passenger vessels. Both are capable of providing a comprehensive package of maritime services including towage, salvage, pilotage, victualling and provisions of all kinds of stores and supplies.

The port of Valletta, a natural deep-water harbour, extends for about 3.6 km inland. Its two-arm breakwater renders it a safe, all-weather port throughout the year. It is a multi-purpose port equipped to offer: various cruise/ferry and cargo berths, specialised grain and cement silos, petroleum installations, bunkering facilities, ship repair and building yards, ship chandelling, reception facilities and other ship related services.

Part of Marsaxlokk is Malta Freeport, operated by Malta Freeport Terminals Limited, which encompasses the activities of container handling and industrial storage. To operate and further develop Malta Freeport Terminals, the Government of Malta awarded French shipping company CMA CGM a 30-year concession in 2004. In 2008 CMA CGM was granted an extension of the concession for Malta Freeport Terminals from 30 to 65 years.

Maltese ports have the capacity to expand but being on an island in the southern Mediterranean, they do not have the ability to load containers onto cargo trains which transport goods directly into central and northern Europe. Both Genoa and Trieste have these logistics capabilities.

In 2017, Marsaxlokk ranked number 50 in Lloyds List’s Top 100 Ports by TEU handled. The port handled 3.15 million TEU in 2017, up 2.1% on 2016. This is below the Greek Piraeus (operated by China’s COSCO Shipping Ports Limited) numbers of 4.145 million TEU in 2017, but ahead of Genoa (2.622 million). Trieste port is not in the Top 100 ports by TEU ranking in 2017.

Speaking two weeks ago in Brussels, Malta’s Finance Minister Edward Scicluna said that his government was willing to join China’s Belt and Road infrastructure investment initiative.