China and Italy signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly advance the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on Saturday during President Xi Jinping’s state visit.
The two countries said in a joint communique issued on the same day that they stand ready to strengthen the alignment of the BRI and Trans-European Transport Networks and deepen the cooperation in ports, logistics, marine transportation and other areas.
Italy’s plan to endorse the initiative has earlier attracted widespread media attention, including from those worried about geopolitical implications of the BRI and alarmed to see a G-7 member join in.
These critics argue that the decision to join the BRI could negatively impact the unity of the European Union. They attribute the fast-tracked negotiation of the MOU to the China-friendly anti-establishment coalition government in Italy, and urge its policymakers not to make a hasty decision and to undertake a careful analysis of the risks.
Italy is a natural partner for the BRI given its location, the status of its economy, and its cultural connections with the ancient trade routes on which the initiative is based. I don’t see how geopolitical or ideological calculations outweigh these rationales.
As for whether a thorough risk analysis has been carried out, or whether this is just a short-term economic solution by the new government, Italy didn’t make this decision rashly and a clear-eyed look at Italy’s place in the world shows why the decision to join the initiative makes sense.
“Italy can be a protagonist in this great operation that China cares about so much,” former Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said at the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation two years ago.
In a signed article ahead of his visit, President Xi quoted Italian writer Alberto Moravia as saying, “friendships are not chosen by chance, but according to the passions that dominate us.” As a major Mediterranean country, Italy knows how valuable its ports are and how important it can be as a bridge between Europe and Asia.
A large proportion of the trade in goods between China and Europe is carried by cargo ships, and ports in Italy are the most convenient entry point for goods from the east and south into western Europe. This is why revitalising the port in Venice is a key project for Italy: It’s close to major central European trading centres such as Slovenia and Hungry, which makes it a competitive alternative to ports in western Europe.
Italy’s economy is entering another recession, having previously slipped into recessions during the global financial crisis and the Euro zone crisis. The economy grew by only 0.2 percent a year for nearly two decades. After a budget expansion failed to boost the economy, an obvious alternative approach is to take advantage of China’s promising market and its growing consumption capacity.
When it comes to designer brands and luxury goods, Chinese consumers think of Italy, which is perhaps only rivalled by France. Some 1.5 million tourists from China visited Italy in 2017, with Venice, Rome, and Milan among the top destinations.
Economic cooperation between Italy and China has the potential to expand beyond bilateral ties: Italy has suggested working with China in third-party markets in Africa on improving prosperity in that region and therefore alleviating the pressure of African migration to Europe.
Historical and cultural connections also play a part in how Italy sees the BRI, arguably the only cross-continental economic platform that resembles the ancient Eurasian trade routes. Italian cities like Venice used to be terminals on the ancient Silk Road, and household figures including Marco Polo were among the pioneers who began the European Age of Exploration.
Of course, there are short-term rationales for Italy to endorse the BRI. Domestically, some cabinet members with a background on China have been promoting a more active China policy through a designated task force. And regionally, increasing pressure from the EU on issues relating to the national budget and migration has exacerbated Euro-sceptic sentiment in Italy.
Beyond the continent, the anti-establishment nature of the coalition government makes it easier to pay less attention to pressure from the United States. The United States is worried that its dominance could be further eroded were a major Western economy to shift to what it sees as an opposing camp.
This concern is based on misconceptions about China’s strategic intentions. China believes that building roads, bridges, and ports benefits all of the participants in the Belt and Road Initiative in the long term. It has no interest in changing the status quo of the post-war global order or becoming a revisionist power. This is why China’s government maintains its policy of never seeking hegemony.
European concerns are concentrated on the unity of the EU, which is already under pressure due to unbalanced development in its member states among other domestic issues. These concerns are more valid than those of the United States, but they still reflect a Cold War mentality and fail to appreciate China’s strategic intentions.
It makes a good sense for China to work with the EU to safeguard multilateralism, given the EU is seeking to reinforce its position as one of the poles in a multipolar world order that is under threat from growing anti-globalisation sentiment.
China has neither the political will nor the capacity to turn the Belt and Road Initiative into a geopolitical arrangement. It is a developing country focused on its development goals. And its long history of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is a demonstration of its unwillingness to get involved in power plays, let alone create an entirely new global power structure.
Relying solely on short-term or geopolitical analyses is to run the risk of misjudging the significance of Italy joining the Belt and Road Initiative, and miss the bigger picture that points to the country being a natural partner for this trade, integration, and connectivity initiative.