There has been talk for weeks about Xi Jinping’s likely trip to Italy, and, equally likely, about the signing of a memorandum of understanding between China and Italy about the New Silk Road, the Chinese infrastructure project touted as the greatest ever in human history, known internationally as One Belt, One Road or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Italy has already expressed its support for the project, with Gentiloni being present in Beijing for the official launch of the initiative in May 2017. Signing such a document would have a great political and media impact in Italy, but likely would not change much otherwise, because, when it comes to actual provisions, according to what we know at this point, a memorandum would add very little in terms of specifics. This is because, from the point of view of Chinese investments in Italy, Beijing already has a strong presence (for example, in the field of highway construction, and many others).
Moreover, the Undersecretary for Economic Development, Michele Geraci—a Lega member, but who is the main proponent of moving closer to China, despite Salvini’s anti-Beijing tweets, which have been focusing particularly on Africa—told Sole24ore that this would be “a framework agreement: just the indication of some strategic sectors in which to promote joint investments and accelerate the securing of contracts on the part of Italian companies.”
The political facts remain: a possible signing would be advantageous to Rome, as it would demonstrate a strong ability to act proactively on the international level, but it would, of course, be even more advantageous for the more powerful side: China.
In this regard, however, we are faced with a paradox: for the past several days, Chinese media have been talking about Italy mostly in the context of the TAV. The Chinese simply cannot understand how Italy can resist the necessity for large public works, the bread and butter of Chinese investments. Thus, the Five Stars should be aware that if they accept Chinese money—or, more broadly, Chinese influence—that could mean having to abandon the troubled cost-benefit analyses altogether, as well as their popular following in the respective territories that was galvanized precisely by the opposition to these large projects: Beijing would not accept any hesitation before engaging in infrastructure projects they deem important.
There is also the political aspect of the situation: if Italy signs the memorandum, the New Silk Road would also count among its declared “friends” (after Greece, Portugal and Hungary) a G7 country and founding member of the EU. For China, this would be a major geopolitical coup, both in relation to Europe and in relation to the United States. And this possibility is being followed so closely by Washington that the Americans’ irritation has been rather overt, first of all in the activities of the diplomatic staff in Italy, who wanted to ask the MISE directly for explanations, and then in the summoning of vice-prime minister Luigi Di Maio to the US embassy (ostensibly in order to talk about Venezuela).
Even more: on Wednesday, the European Commission approved the start of a process of screening of direct foreign investments, a measure clearly targeted a China, while Italy abstained, despite the fact that Rome (in the person of the same Geraci) had always expressed its support for this measure. However, maintaining an alliance with China requires making geopolitical moves, as demonstrated also by Greece, which recently expressed objections at the UN against reports accusing China of human rights violations.
In any case, Italy’s abstention was enough for the US to decide to give Rome a stark reminder of how things look from their point of view. A recent article in the Financial Times clearly laid out the Americans’ thinking, who are annoyed by Italy’s behavior. Garrett Marquis, the spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, told the London-based financial daily that Washington is “skeptical that the Italian government’s endorsement will bring any sustained economic benefits to the Italian people, and it may end up harming Italy’s global reputation in the long run.”
Marquis also said that the US government has expressed all its concerns to its Italian counterpart about what he called the negative effects of China’s “infrastructure diplomacy,” and that the US government has also urged all countries who are their “allies and trading partners,” including Italy, to put pressure on China to keep its global investments within the limits of internationally accepted standards.
The United States has been engaged in a trade confrontation with China for some time now, as well as in a more general attempt to discredit Beijing before all its allies: as regards the latter, the Huawei affair showcases the US’s approach, with Washington setting out to ask everyone not to allow Huawei to secure important contracts in their countries. The fight is not so much—and not only—about tariffs: it is instead turning into a decisive battle in the race for global technological leadership.
In this context, the New Silk Road is being seen as a kind of Chinese Trojan horse meant to help them force their way into policy areas that have been traditionally “Atlanticist.”
The BRI is a project launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, which now involves nearly a hundred countries and has as its goal the funding of large-scale infrastructure projects to enable the movement of goods at higher speeds.
Some analysts say the project is running into political trouble, but, since Beijing has included it in its own Constitution, everyone assumes that it will be a reality for a long time, at least until the 100-year anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2049, a date that looms large in the minds of the Chinese leaders.
The closeness between China and Italy as regards the BRI is getting more confirmation almost daily: earlier this week, the Genovese newspaper Il Secolo XIX ran the breaking news that the port of Genoa might enter into a partnership with the Chinese CCCC (China Communications Construction Company) concerning contracts and large projects in the port of Genoa.
On Wednesday, the Genovese newspaper had new confirmation of what they had previously written, in the form of statements by the president of the Western Ligurian Sea Port Authority, Paolo Emilio Signorini. According to Signorini, “at the end of the month, during the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Rome, Italy—the first Western European country to do so—will sign a bilateral agreement with China on the Belt & Road project.”
This possibility would certainly entail a serious geopolitical shift for Italy, which has always been in the Atlanticist orbit but is now moving closer and closer to China.