Flags of Italy and the European Union. Photo: iStock
Flags of Italy and the European Union. Photo: iStock

Barring a change of heart at the last minute, it is almost certain that Italy will sign up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative this week. This will be a big boon for the Asian power and its core leader, Xi Jinping.

It is expected that Italy will sign a memorandum of understanding on the BRI during Xi’s visit to the European country on March 21-23, becoming the first member of the Group of Seven to participate formally in Beijing’s giant trade, investment and infrastructure project, designed to improve not just China’s trade reach but also its global influence.

On the surface, Rome’s official participation in Beijing’s trillion-dollar venture is purely an economic issue between the two nations. In reality, however, it is not that simple.

Initiated by Xi in 2013 and incorporated in the charter of the ruling Communist Party of China in 2017, the BRI is China’s – and indeed Xi’s – flagship foreign policy. Consequently, Xi and Beijing’s propaganda machines have used all means and occasions to promote it.

In his keynote speech at the grandiose inaugural Belt and Road Forum in 2017, Xi revealed that he came up with the initiative, which he called “a project of the century,” because he saw “a deficit in peace, development and governance [that] poses a daunting challenge to mankind.” For Xinhua, China’s official news agency, “the initiative is a perfect example of China sharing its own wisdom and solutions for global growth and governance.”

But not everybody or every country has seen it in such a positive way. Some regard it as a strategic tool for Beijing to extend its sphere of influence. For others, instead of empowering participating countries, the scheme puts some of them under huge debt or what is now well known as the debt trap.

In fact, some countries, including Asian neighbors such as Malaysia, have realized such risks and consequently reconsidered, downgraded or canceled BRI projects.

It is no surprise that the news that Italy will join China’s ambitious strategy has invoked apprehension in Brussels and opposition in Washington

A resolution on EU-China relations overwhelmingly passed last September by the European Parliament warned that the infrastructure projects under China’s massive program “could create large debts” for European countries involved, pointing out that “some BRI-related infrastructure projects have already placed third governments in a state of over-indebtedness.” US officials, including Vice-President Mike Pence, have repeatedly warned other countries about the dangers posed by the initiative, aka One Belt, One Road (OBOR).

Thus it is no surprise that the news that Italy will join China’s ambitious strategy has invoked apprehension in Brussels and opposition in Washington.

In a move seen as a rebuke to member states such as Italy for aligning too closely with Beijing’s BRI and an attempt to forge a united approach toward “China’s growing economic power and political influence,” on March 12, the European Commission issued a strategic communication, in which it mapped out 10 proposals for dealing with Beijing. What is also notable is that Brussels has now called China “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”

Three days earlier, the Donald Trump White House’s National Security Council sternly warned, as it “is a major global economy and a great investment destination,” that Italy’s endorsement of the BRI would lend “legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment” and such a move “will bring no benefits to the Italian people.” On the same day, a spokesman for this US body also publicly urged Italy not “to lend legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project.”

As Xi Jinping, dubbed China’s “Chairman of Everything, Everywhere and Everyone,” now reigns supreme over the 1.3-billion-people country, any public opposition to his rule and foreign policy, including the BRI, his pet project, is not allowed. Yet, as noted by some, there must be some discontent about his enormously expensive adventure – especially at a time when China’s economy is slowing down and the country is faced with other severe challenges and risks.

Such global backlash and domestic unease has put a lot of pressure on China and especially on Xi Jinping, the BRI’s architect.

Against this background, Italy’s formal participation in the BRI is enormously significant for China and Xi, who is head of the party, state and army.

Of course, Italy is not the first EU member state to join in the scheme. About a dozen EU countries, including Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia, have already signed MoUs with Beijing on the BRI.

But unlike those countries, Italy is the fourth-largest economy in the EU (after Germany, the United Kingdom and France) and eighth in the world. It is also a member of the G7, the group of leading industrial democracies. Consequently, its formal endorsement of the BRI has more – and bigger – ramifications.

By breaking ranks with the EU and the G7 and defying the United States’ opposition to join China’s BRI, Italy not just endorses Beijing’s controversial project but also chooses to align with the authoritarian country at the expense of its traditional allies. At a time when it has locked in disputes with Western countries, notably the US, on a wide range of key issues, Italy’s move is, without doubt, a diplomatic coup for China.

Rome’s backing also helps Xi to relieve domestic pressure. A key objective of his state visit to Spain last November was to persuade Madrid to sign up to his ambition plan, though the latter refused to do so.

That said, it is still too early to assess whether Italy’s decision to endorse the BRI this week will become a game changer in China-Italy relations and their respective foreign policies.

The decision to sign up to China’s program isn’t wholeheartedly and universally backed by Italy’s current leadership. Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S),  which is both Euroskeptic and anti-American, strongly supports the move. But Matteo Salvini, the leader of the rightist League (LN), who is, like Di Maio, a deputy prime minister, is less enthusiastic. He warns against the risk of “foreign companies colonizing Italy.”

Italy’s present government, seen as the first populist government in modern Western Europe, is a coalition of the LN and the M5S and led by Giuseppe Conte, a law professor, who belongs to neither party. The governemnt was just formed last April and remains fragile. Perhaps, for the governing alliance’s sake, Salvini and his League have to support the move.

Yet it is not certain how long both parties of the government and the Independent prime minister can maintain such a united front, especially given the fact that Italy’s China gambit is opposed by Brussels and especially Washington, which remain Rome’s most important allies, as well as foreign-policy analysts.

Any major disagreement between – or even within – the two parties will lead to the collapse of the governing alliance. In fact, Italy constantly changes its government. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power in China, Italy has had five prime ministers. As with the cases of Maldives and Malaysia, a new government in Italy may upend the current government’s China-friendly policy.

What’s more, if the main points of the five-page draft are any guide, the MoU the two sides are expected to sign is very vague. It is also, according to Conte, non-binding.

Given all of this, it remains to be seen whether the BRI-related agreements that Italy signs with China this week will materialize and be sustained.

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