Italy’s plan to join China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) was bound to be controversial. Such a move would be highly symbolic, no member of the Group of Seven most advanced economies having so far signed on, and the idea worries governments wary about Beijing’s growing might and influence.
The United States has voiced opposition and Germany and other European Union members are said to be exerting behind-the-scenes pressure to convince Italian leaders not to agree to a memorandum of understanding when President Xi Jinping visits Europe later this week.
But there are benefits to be gained through trade, investment and construction of infrastructure that no government can ignore and sovereign nations have every right to make decisions that are in their best interests.
American opposition is grounded in efforts by US President Donald Trump’s administration to diminish China’s rise and maintain Washington’s global dominance. Since the launch last year of its trade war with Beijing, it has been exerting pressure on allies to shun Chinese products, services and initiatives and labelled BRI as a debt trap.
Germany is Europe’s economic and industrial powerhouse and critics contend Italy’s joining of the BRI could begin to tilt the balance towards China.
They argue that although the project to link China to Europe and Africa by land and sea through the construction of ports, roads and rail lines to improve the movement of people and trade is promoted as being for joint benefit, the leadership is Chinese.
China has the master plan and with most of the 80 countries that have so far joined being low- and middle-income economies, is invariably the senior partner. It has been central to financing and construction of the 2,000 or so projects valued at more than US$1 trillion that have so far been approved.
But ambitions and expectations have sometimes got out of hand and Beijing is now sensitive to concerns and making adjustments through partnerships, the hiring of local workers and ensuring shared goals.
Italy sees only benefits from the BRI. Greece and other countries in Europe and elsewhere have signed on for similar reasons. China should be viewed as a partner, not a rival.