That was then. This is now: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony at Villa Madama in Rome during Xi's two-day visit to Italy in March 2019. Photo: Asia Times files / Christian Minelli / NurPhoto

During the Qing Dynasty, the West labeled China with the term “Serica” because of the silk (Latin serica) Rome imported along a meandering 8,000-kilometer passage called by the geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen “the Silk Road.” It is well known that the Road formed an overland umbilical that linked China and Europe, favoring those who wanted to trade fabrics, goods and metals, and promoting the diffusion of ideas and religions. Here merchants, missionaries, travelers and warriors met one another to give rise to conflicts, exchanges of knowledge, and the emergence of new worlds.

The fame of these commercial and maritime routes resisted all the major changes imposed by time, but in 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his country’s intention to launch more ambitious cooperation projects to restore the ancient splendor and political centrality of the Silk Road. The necessary investments involve collaboration between governments, and their commitment to constructing a common destiny in the framework of one of the most discussed projects of contemporary society.

Over the years, more and more states joined the One Belt, One Road initiative, activating with Beijing a partnership to build interconnections on a regional and global scale whose main structures would be completed by 2049. Within this extended network, the lates peg in the chronological order has the colors of the Italian flag.

March turned out to be a decisive moment in the writing of a new paragraph in the relationship between China and Italy, with Xi and other leaders of the Beijing government officially visiting Rome to meet Italian counterparts and to sign 29 trade agreements and institutional arrangements with a value of approximately US$20 billion. In particular, the memorandum of understanding signed by Rome endorsing the Belt and Road Initiative served as the pillar document of the renewed friendship between the two countries, through which Italy became the first nation in the Group of Seven to join China’s New Silk Road.

By leveraging on its position at the gates of Europe, Italy reinforced its liaison with China to regain influence and control that the country had lost on the international chessboard due to gnawing economic stagnation – according to the Bank of Italy, in the third quarter of 2018 Italian gross domestic product decreased by 0.1% compared with the 0.2 percentage point of the previous period, recording a fragile recovery at the beginning of 2019 that left little room for the hopes of citizens. Although China is now a global economic power that frightens some with its size, ideology and potential, Italy does not deny the advantages that businesses and professionals can gain by penetrating a market characterized by challenges and growth opportunities.

Indeed, the Belt and Road MoU is focused on enhancing the dialogue between Rome and Beijing, stimulating their financial and commercial cooperation, the development of investments in transportation and logistics, and the implementation of cultural exchanges. For example, some of the companies and banks that are involved in the signed agreements are Cassa Depositi e Prestiti, which is interested in Panda bonds, Ansaldo STS, Eni Spa and the Authority of the Port of Trieste and Genova, which will partner with the Bank of China, China United Gas Turbine Technology, China Communication Construction Company, and Shanghai Electric Gas Turbine. Specifically, the Italian ports could play have strategic importance for China’s foreign activities.

Thanks to Italy’s geographical position on the Mediterranean Sea, these ports could represent additional access to European markets, as well as a focal point making the country attractive to control routes to Africa. In the last few years, Chinese interests were extended with investments on the Maritime Silk Road, since the main flow of goods takes place via sea. From Piraeus Port in Greece to the Noatum Port Holdings in Spain through the Port of Said in Egypt and the Euromak Terminal in the Netherlands, a dense network fostered by Chinese financial resources is going to wrap around and include the Italian ports, which in turn could multiply economic and occupational repercussions thanks to the BRI.

In addition, according to data published in 2018 by SRM, the Italian observatory on the economy of maritime transportation and logistics, container traffic in the Mediterranean grew by 500% over the past 20 years, with particular growth registered in Southern European ports. As well, the World Trade Organization named China as the No 9 market destination for Italian goods in 2018. Indeed, some 3% of Italian exports go to the Middle Kingdom, a percentage that is likely to increase after the agreements signed in March.

By triggering a win-win strategy, Italy could offer technological know-how, a consolidated luxury sector with Made in Italy products requested by more demanding Chinese consumers, quality products from the agri-food industry, and support for sustainable development. On the other side, China could invest in the construction and enlargement of ports and railways, in the rescue of the national airline, and in collaboration between Chinese and Italian startups.

Currently in China there are 1,700 Italian companies with 150,000 employees, which could be joined by small and medium-sized enterprises that will benefit from the Sino-Italian Co-Investment Fund. The internationalization of Italian organizations in China assumes relevance with the birth of a joint venture between Intesa San Paolo Bank and the City of Qingdao intended to develop a wealth-management plan.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that despite the objective benefits, European partners have expressed concerns about such Sino-Italian relationships. Criticisms were focused on three main points.

First, Germany and France discouraged the Belt and Road MoU, deeming this document not in line with European foreign policy. This suggests that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would have opted for a common approach to handle China, but according to her country’s Federal Statistical Office, Beijing and Berlin signed more than 225 agreements in the past decade, positioning Germany as China’s No 1 trading partner within the European Union. French President Emmanuel Macron also supported an action plan studied by EU members, but this vision did not match the contracts concluded with Xi Jinping one week after the Chinese state visit to Rome. The French concerns confirmed the competition within the eurozone, which could see France losing ground if Chinese goods terminate at Italian ports.

Second, the EU and the United States were skeptical about the MoU considering the risk of a debt trap. But this risk has no consistency because of Italy’s membership in the G7. In addition, according to international law, an MoU does not imply obligations for parties.

Third, debates raised in relation to industrial and technological property, with experts considering China insufficiently attentive to reciprocity in this field, despite the status of non-market economy assigned to China since its accession to the WTO in 2001, when members imposed new conditions the country had to satisfy in order to change its status. However, China recently demonstrated openness by introducing new laws to attract foreign investments and to protect intellectual property.

Western countries cannot waste time with an obsolete view of China if they want to take an active role in the dynamics that shape the modern international arena.

Federica Russo is research lead at Navis, an executive search firm which takes an active role to improve how business leaders are selected. Previously, she was director of research at Wikistrat, a consulting firm helping Fortune 500 corporations and governments to brainstorm solutions and obtain an in-depth understanding of their landscape by using a crowdsourcing approach. She is currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Leave a comment