We are accustomed to thinking of Asian history only in terms of its connection to Europe’s or the West. We still use expressions, such as “Middle East,” which make no sense from an Asian perspective. And even when it happens that a country such as China advances far enough to make a dent in the US-dominated world order, we keep thinking everything revolves around us. China is already considered the number one world power in terms of PPA (parity of purchasing power), and, since Xi Jinping came to power, it has launched a direct challenge to the US dominance of the high-tech sector.
China’s international orientation most prominently features the project it launched in 2013, the New Silk Road, called One Belt One Road for a Chinese audience, and branded as the Belt and Road Initiative for the rest of the world (a name chosen by Beijing to sound more reassuring).
Is China trying to gain hegemonic status, a plan that unexpectedly seems to involve Italy becoming an important place in the European context? To ask the question in this way means to apply a partial, one-sided framework to an Asian power which sees its own way of being in the world in a very different manner from a Western one.
With the BRI, China is, no doubt, trying to increase the speed of commerce to promote its own goods, trying to gain authority over important nodes in order to control them, and seeking bilateral agreements to increase its bargaining power. It is a form of globalization that looks rather strange from our perspective, because it shows no desire to export a particular model. Rather, the kind of hegemony China seeks is the ability to have access to open markets for their goods, from manufacturing to the more advanced technological sector, where it is now focusing on 5G connectivity, something that could give a serious competitive advantage to its companies.
It may seem strange that a communist country wants free markets. However, this situation doesn’t look so strange anymore if we look at what China has become, even within just the past 40 years. Or, indeed, if we read Giovanni Arrighi’s book Adam Smith a Pechino (“Adam Smith in Beijing”), where he explains how the state is the real “invisible hand.” In China, they have understood this a long time ago.
The likely signing of a memorandum of understanding between China and Italy has obvious benefits for Beijing—first of all political, because they would get a sort of seal of approval from a founding member of the EU, and from the first member of the G7 to sign such a document. However, this would not be a treaty (as some have erroneously and repeatedly called it over the past few days), but rather an agreement within a larger project.
The project is ultimately to create a new tianxia, an ancient term meaning “all that is under the (Chinese) heavens,” the cornerstone of Beijing’s “imperial” conception—a very different one from that of the US, which aims to make all political systems it encounters more similar to Washington’s own. In this sense, the Chinese project is not ideological: if we look at European nations, for instance, China has signed agreements with Greece, Portugal and Hungary, which are all very different from each other.
Tianxia is a concept that does not stop at geographical boundaries, but takes into account only cultural boundaries of civilization, and which was once implemented through a system of paying tributes. Nowadays, Beijing has to adapt to the existence of nation-states, and it is doing so as we speak.
The debate currently picking up in Italy about China is nonsensical: we don’t know what it’s like to be a country that has had a single foreign policy since time immemorial—indeed, we haven’t even been able to take consistent positions in any of the international crises that ended up redesigning the system of international alliances. We have always held the notion that we shouldn’t upset anyone: to take just the most recent examples, we are with Maduro, but also with Guaidó, with Putin, but also with Trump, and so on.
And as regards China, our confusion reigns supreme, compounded by the prevailing “sovereignism”: we have a government unable to read what is going on in the world, and that seems to think an agreement with China—after the anti-China American push—would be a good “band aid” solution to avoid losing face. Indeed, if it were up to the current government, Italy would sign anything whatsoever just as long as it managed to not anger Beijing and at the same time reassure the American allies. In this manner, we are putting ourselves in a position of extreme weakness in relation to everyone: China, the United States, and even Europe, where everyone preaches uniformity only to turn around and go their own way (the example of Germany is paradigmatic, the country which is China’s largest trading partner in the EU).
What should we have done instead? Become fully aware of the current realities. China will have more and more weight in the balance of world power, and the commercial connections that Beijing is setting up in the Mediterranean are of interest to us, at least until China definitively chooses the Arctic routes to get where they really want to go: namely, to Northern Europe.
Having acknowledged the situation, instead of continuing to parrot the Americans sewing doubts about the “trustworthiness” of Chinese companies, we should think about what lies ahead, because in the future we will have to choose whether we would prefer that our data—the future wealth of nations—be managed by the Americans or by the Chinese, knowing that none of these choices are likely to be pretty (ever heard of the NSA?). Faced with this dilemma, those on the left, who are nowadays playing the part of hardcore pro-Atlanticists, would have a great opening for a different approach: indeed, what is data but a common good?
Even if we think in terms of mere realpolitik, according to which it is quite beneficial to be closer to Beijing, such a transition still has to be managed intelligently: too much of a tall order, perhaps, for this government, which ends up falling into the same errors in everything it tries to do, most often due to a lack of a vision for the future. It is very difficult to have something like that, after all, if you’re in permanent campaign mode.