Italy Becomes First European Country to Join China’s Belt and Road Initiative
On Saturday, Mar. 23, 2019, the Italian government signed a non-binding agreement to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an initiative to expand its economic ties throughout the Eastern Hemisphere.
The BRI aims to link China to the rest of the Eastern Hemisphere — including countries residing in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa — through a system of networks along the lines of the old Silk Road, a nod to the original transcontinental route that enriched traders from the Atlantic to the Pacific through much of early history. To proponents of the BRI, the initiative will allow China to more easily export goods to lucrative markets.The cost is projected to be more than 1 trillion USD, and China has already invested more than 210 billion USD, mostly in construction within Asia. Experts note that this development and investment initiative is China’s most ambitious infrastructure project ever conceived.
The agreement signed on Saturday by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte maps out a total of 29 deals, culminating to 2.5 billion euros (2.8 billion USD) across an array of Italy’s economic sectors.
“We export a lot less than we import, compared with our European friends,” said Licia Mattioli, vice president for international affairs at Confindustria, the Italian national chamber of commerce, “so we think there is a huge potential [here] that we can exploit.” However, what Italy believes is a boost to its slowing economy has been met with much criticism by countries residing in Europe, as well as the United States.
Italy’s populist government’s alignment with China’s initiative further increases tensions among its allies and the EU, especially following the EU’s rejection of the country’s 2019 budget spending plan. Its deal with China will likely boost the legitimacy of President Xi’s initiative to the consternation of many of Italy’s neighbors.
Additionally, Prime Minister Conte’s deal with President Xi is seen by many as an undermining of Europe’s attempt to withstand the burgeoning influence of China’s economic power.
"It's clear that this does undermine Europe's and the West's ability to stand up to China," Federico Santi, senior Europe analyst at Eurasia Group, told CNBC on Tuesday. "This will be another source of friction between Italy and Europe which, ultimately, will be to the detriment of Italy itself.” The terms of the agreement between Italy and China remained yet to be seen.
French President Emmanuel Macron, along with other EU leaders, vowed for a tougher approach toward China’s expanding geopolitical influence. On Tuesday, Macron stated his commitment to further deepen ties with China while remaining united as a European front to the superpower.
Furthermore, Garrett Marquis, White House National Security Council spokesperson, spoke of the frustrations of Washington in light of Italy’s newfound alliance with China’s vision, stating “We view BRI as a ‘made by China, for China’ initiative.”
As China’s economy slows, many experts predict this could be a type of “Chinese Marshall Plan,” a state-backed campaign for not only China’s vision of economic dominance in the Eastern hemisphere, but also a massive marketing campaign for China’s expanding investments around the world. Xi’s grand initiative seeks to establish China’s superior influence in geopolitical matters, by connected over a fourth of the world with the country through land and sea.
The “Memorandum of Understanding” signed conjointly by China and Italy shows that both parties intend to focus development on Italy’s transport logistics and port infrastructure, as well as strengthen financial ties and a “two-way, unimpeded” trade and investment relationship.