Chinese President Xi Jinping, who celebrated his birthday on Friday. Photo: Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who celebrated his birthday on Friday. Photo: Xinhua

In a so-called “signed article” published on the eve of his two-day visit to Italy, which started on March 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he wanted to take ties with the European country into “a new era.”

It is not the first time that Xi has penned such an article and used such language. In fact, it has now become the norm that before departing for a foreign country, the Chinese leader writes an op-ed specifically aimed at its people. His commentary is carried by one or a few chosen newspapers in the nation he is visiting and is widely disseminated by China’s main news outlets, such as Xinhua, the People’s Daily and the China Daily.

The articles often follow a similar pattern. In the first part, Xi – hailed by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, as “a world leader” whose “extensive knowledge of literature and the arts makes him a consummate communicator in the international arena” – lavishes praise on his host country’s landscape, history, culture or people. Then he talks about China’s millennium- or century-old interaction with the concerned nation and their recent cooperation. In the third and most important part, he explains why and how China and the host country should enter “a new chapter” or “a new era” of deeper cooperation.

For instance, before his trip to Argentina in late November/early December last year, Xi did a piece carrying the headline: “Opening up a new era in China-Argentina relations.” In that editorial, he urged the two countries to “seize historical opportunities, move forward with the times, and join hands to open up a new era in China-Argentina comprehensive strategic partnership to the greater benefit of our peoples.”

On the eve of his Spain outing, which took place a few days earlier, he also produced an op-ed, this one titled: “Joining hands for new splendor in the new era.”

In his article for the Milan-based Corriere della Sera, entitled: “East meets West – A new chapter of Sino-Italian friendship,” Xi, who often paints himself as an altruistic leader of not just the 1.3-billion-people country but also the whole of mankind, wrote: “In a world that faces profound changes of a kind unseen in a century, the onus is on us to bring China-Italy relations to a higher level and to jointly safeguard world peace, stability, development and prosperity.” That’s why he said, “Through my upcoming visit, I hope to work with Italian leaders to map out the future of our relationship and move it into a new era.”

In the “new era” of the China-Italy relationship, he urged, the two countries should “plan more high-level exchanges and cooperation between our governments, parliaments, political parties and subnational entities, strengthen policy communication, enhance strategic trust and synergy, and continue to give understanding and support to each other on issues of core interests and major concerns, so as to consolidate the political foundation of our relations.”

More importantly, he stated, “China hopes to work with Italy to advance Belt and Road cooperation” by “jointly [building] the Belt and Road of the new era on sea, on land, in the air, in space and in the cultural domain” as well as “to expand cooperation into new areas.”

With such high hopes, Xi specifically singled out the strategically sensitive areas of port logistics, maritime transport, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals as sectors where, he believed, collaboration could bring “win-win” benefits to the two countries.

Xi specifically singled out the strategically sensitive areas of port logistics, maritime transport, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals as sectors where, he believed, collaboration could bring “win-win” benefits to the two countries

It is no surprise that Xi always expresses his strong desire to move China’s relations with other countries, notably Italy, into “a new era” in his “signed articles.”

In October 2017 and March 2018, his political theory – “Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era” – was enshrined in the ruling Communist Party’s charter and China’s Constitution, respectively. China’s 2018 amended Constitution also removed the presidential term limit, paving the way for Xi, who is supposed to step down in 2022, to stay in power indefinitely.

The strongman leader also declared “a new era” for China and outlined his goal to make the Asian country a leading global power by 2050.

Because of all this, everything he says or does must be big or epoch-making. One such ambitious endeavor is his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a giant trade, investment and infrastructure project or what he called the “project of the century.”

As he has invested so much personal, financial and political capital in it, Xi desperately needs international support for his pet project – especially at a time when the trillion-dollar program is faced with widespread international criticism.

Against this backdrop, Italy’s formal endorsement of the BRI, which is expected to take place during his current state visit, is a diplomatic coup for Xi. By signing up to the initiative, Italy, the third-biggest economy in the eurozone, becomes the first member of the G7 group of industrialized democracies to officially endorse Beijing’s flagship foreign policy.

In an op-ed for the People’s Daily, China’s main mouthpiece, on Thursday, Li Ruiyu, China’s ambassador to Italy, said Xi’s trip – the first visit to Italy by a Chinese president in a decade – “is of epoch-making significance for China-Italy relations and will surely open a new chapter in bilateral friendship and pragmatic cooperation.”

But there are many reasons to doubt whether Xi’s Italy trip and Rome’s BRI endorsement will be an epoch-making moment in China-Italy relations.

While Xi will likely reign supreme over China in the years or decades to come, it’s far from certain that Italy’s populist coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-migrant League party will still be in power in two or three years’ time. Since 2012, when Xi came to power in China, Italy has had five prime ministers. As with Maldives and Malaysia, a new government in Italy may upend the current government’s China-friendly policy.

Such an overturn is probable also because, while Rome’s overt overture toward Beijing is a massive win for China – economically, politically and diplomatically, it may not bring significant benefits to Italy. Economically and strategically, its decision to break ranks with its traditional allies in the EU and the G7, notably the US, to join China’s BRI is a risky move. It can backfire on the current coalition and the country because, after all, the EU and the US are – and continue to be – Italy’s biggest economic partners and closest allies.

On this note, any suggestion that Xi’s current visit is an “epoch-making” moment in China-Italy relations may be premature.

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