On Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit in Europe begins, including stops in Italy, Monaco and France. Xi’s visit to Italy is expected to be the highlight of his trip to Europe, after Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said last week that he planned to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Xi to endorse the BRI, an ambitious multi-billion-dollar investment program championed by Xi personally.
By becoming the first Group of Seven industrialized nation to openly support China’s BRI, Italy could risk sowing discord with other EU partners such as France and Germany, who have been cautious and voiced concerns over Beijing’s true intentions behind the BRI.
Although China stressed that the BRI projects are expected to bring mutual benefits to participating countries, Western countries led by the United States have largely avoided taking part in related projects, which have been viewed as Beijing’s plan to boost its geopolitical influence globally and often brought negative impact such as debt traps to the recipient countries.
Equal Playing Field
However, Italian political analysts argued that Rome is simply trying to draw level with EU neighbours such as Germany and the Netherlands, who have benefited from close business relations with China.
"The projects of the BRI are already in place in Europe. Over the last five years, more than 15,000 cargo trains have arrived in Europe from China. Two main railway stations are based in Germany, more precisely Duisburg and Hamburg. You have to be aware that the railway connection between China and Europe is already on. About 80 percent of the goods delivered between Europe and China came by ship. The main ports in Europe are Rotterdam [in the Netherlands] and Hamburg [in Germany]. In this perspective, the BRI has already involved several European countries including the Netherlands and Germany. But Italy wasn’t involved at all. The signing of such an MOU [with China on BRI] is an opportunity to recover part of the delay Italy had compared to the Netherlands or Germany," Giuliano Noci, a China expert at Milan Polytechnic business school, told Sputnik.
The Milan-based expert believes Italy has been criticized unfairly by other EU partners for trying to take a different approach when dealing with China.
"Some of the most important European countries have already set up connections [with China]. Whenever Italy tries to set up a connection [with China], they say: we must have a unitary position. I hope the European Commission will achieve a unique position which can preserve the local interests [of individual member states]. I view the claims from the European Commission last week as empty claims. How come you have already signed agreements and you already have connections [with China] in place," he said.
Nevertheless, Noci stressed that Italy needs to try to maximize the business benefits China could bring, as Rome is indeed making a political sacrifice by endorsing the BRI.
"I understand that there is a political meaning in the signature [of the MOU]. But this is the exchange. We give China a sort of political prize [by endorsing the BRI], but we also ask for exchange a lot of business. Of course. All the strategic asset of Italy should be set aside and be excluded from any agreement with China," he said.
The expert added that it’s important for the Italy to seek specific reassurances from China such as reciprocal treatment of Italian companies in the Chinese market.
More Independent Policy
In response to Italy’s decision to endorse China’s BRI, a White House official expressed opposition to the new stance from Rome.
"Italy is a major global economy and great investment destination. No need for the Italian government to lend legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project," Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the White House’s group of national security advisers, said in a post on Twitter.
But Italian scholars argued that Italy could have set a good example for other EU member states to seek more independence on foreign policy decisions.
"I think one of the reasons the United States is so upset is the fact that they’re a bit more isolated than before, because of their own policies. I think this Italian choice can be an occasion for Europe to think again about its role and could also be an occasion by the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to seek more autonomous on management of international relations," Professor Renzo Cavalieri, a lawyer and legal scholar specialized on China at The Foscari University of Venice, told Sputnik.
The expert explained that EU member states seem to prioritize their national interests over a common policy of the bloc on China.
"France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the think tanks are all a bit worried about the independent position taken by Italy. But at the end of the day, it is the common interests of Europe as a whole to deal with this. I don’t know if Europe would be strong enough and clever enough to develop a common policy. But so far, the common policy was quite vague and the national interests prevailed," he said.
No Debt Trap for Italy
As most of the countries that have taken part in China’s BRI are developing countries from Africa and Southeast Asia, Italy needs to try to negotiate new rules of engagement from Beijing as one of the first developed economies to join the initiative, Professor Cavalieri suggested.
"Italy is not a developing country. It’s not even a weak country, although we do have our weakness. We’re not like a small and weak economy like Greece 5-6 years ago. Italy is smaller than China, but it is a developed country. The method of cooperation [between China and Italy] will be quite different from what Beijing utilizes against African or Central Asian countries," he said.
The scholar argued that it’s unlikely for Italy to fall into debt traps like countries like Sri Lanka did because of its failure to pay off Chinese investments.
"Italy is not Sri Lanka, Malaysia or Montenegro. Those are beautiful countries. But they’re not possible comparisons to Italy. Investments in Italy from China have provided evidence that Italy is not the place where Chinese are interested in building infrastructure with their own money, their own engineers and then use the financial tools to obtain direct influence or even ownership of infrastructure," he said.
Sri Lanka had to hand over the control of the Hambontota port on its southern coast to China in December 2017, after the local government struggled to repay the $1.3 billion given in loans for the port project issued by a Chinese state-owned bank. Through a 99-year lease agreement, Chinese companies obtained a 70 percent stake in the strategic port.
The views and opinions expressed by analysts in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.