Tue, Mar 19, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Italy’s drive to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative hits potholes

Xi Jinping is due to sign a preliminary accord during his visit to Rome this week, but analysts and critics say the Italian government has not weighed the geopolitical risks of such a move, as cracks begin to appear within the ruling coaltion over the proposed links

By Crispian Balmer  /  Reuters, ROME

Illustration: Yusha

The ancient Silk Road was a network of trading routes that stretched from China to Italy, transporting goods, skills and ideas halfway around the world.

Jump forward two millennia and Italy now wants to play a pivotal role in the new Silk Road being created by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), but joining the latest incarnation is proving controversial and risky for Rome’s modern-day masters.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte plans to sign a preliminary accord when Xi visits Rome this week, hooking Italy up to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — a colossal, multibillion-dollar project designed to improve Beijing’s trade reach.

Italy’s drive to be the first G7 industrialized nation to join the ambitious venture has angered Washington and alarmed Brussels, raising fears of a sellout of sensitive technologies and the handover of critical infrastructure.

With ports that offer easy gateways into Europe’s richest markets, Italy is a promising and prestigious prize for China.

In return for its endorsement, Italy’s government hopes for a boost in exports and investment that will lift its anemic economy out of its third recession in a decade.

However, diplomatic analysts and political foes say Rome has not weighed the geopolitical risks, failed to consult with its Western partners and underestimated growing concern about China’s burgeoning global aspirations.

“I am afraid that up until now we have handled this in too amateurish a fashion, without any real coordination,” said Lucio Caracciolo, director of the influential Limes geopolitical review.

“My fear is that in the end we will lose on both counts, getting nothing substantial from China while the United States retaliates against us for having got too close to Beijing,” he said.

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, who leads the populist 5-Star Movement, has spearheaded the pro-Beijing policy, setting up a China Task Force within the industry ministry that has the stated aimed of making Italy a “privileged partner” in BRI.

He has visited China twice in eight months and effectively sidelined the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation on one of the most sensitive diplomatic issues of the day.

Di Maio’s task force is led by Italian Under-Secretary of State for Economic Development Michele Geraci, who lived in China for 10 years before entering government last year. Neither he, Di Maio nor Conte had any experience of international diplomacy before last year.

Geraci speaks Chinese and fervently backs closer ties with Beijing, saying Italy has fallen behind its partners.

“When I returned to Italy I found a certain inertia when it came to China,” Geraci, a former economics professor, told reporters last month. “We need to play catch-up.”

According to Eurostat, Germany exported 93.8 billion euros (US$106 billion at the current exchange rate) of goods to China last year, with Britain next on the list exporting 23.4 billion euros, France third with 20.8 billion euros and Italy fourth on 13.17 billion euros.

“There is huge potential there that other countries are already taking advantage of,” Geraci said.

However, just as Italy adopts its new position, the rest of Europe seems to be having second thoughts.

The European Commission last week branded Beijing a “systemic rival” and called on EU leaders to back its ideas to curb Chinese state-owned enterprises.

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