China’s Belt and Road train is steaming into the heart of Europe, with Italy being its next major destination. President Xi Jinping is heading for Rome later this month, where he is expected to sign a joint document with Italy on the latter’s intent to partner the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A signature project of the Mr. Xi, the BRI is a highly ambitious plan of linking China by sea and land with Southeast and Central Asia, West Asia, Europe and Africa through an infrastructure network. The result is a sweeping 21st century reincarnation of the ancient Silk Road.
Though the most high-profile, the BRI is not the only game in town on mega connectivity. A fusion of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and India’s Act East Policy, for instance, is yielding new trans-Asia connectivity corridors, including one that will link landlocked Bhutan with South-East Asia through India’s northeastern part and Bangladesh. The EU, too, has floated its Trans-European Transport Network plan. It has identified priority projects in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. In total, the big-ticket undertaking, requiring €13 billion of funding will deliver 4,800 km of road and rail, along with six ports, and 11 logistics centres.
Yet, China’s intent to draw Rome into the BRI has sparked volcanic protests, primarily because it would become the first country of the G-7 — the sanctum sanctorum of the trans-Atlantic alliance — to bond with an initiative from China, widely seen as the long-term strategic rival of the West. The echo of geopolitical friction is well-pronounced in the U.S. statement on Italy’s proposed move.
“Italy is a major global economy and great investment destination. No need for Italian government to lend legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project,” said White House spokesman Garrett Marquis on Twitter on March 10. “We are sceptical that the Italian government’s endorsement will bring any sustained economic benefits to the Italian people, and it may end up harming Italy’s global reputation in the long run,” he told The Financial Times.
China has scoffed at Washington’s stance. “This position taken by the U.S. side is laughable,” asserted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang. “As a major country, Italy knows exactly what policies serve its own interests and it can make its decisions independently.”
The EU has also begun to bicker about Italy’s budding dalliance with China. “If the Belt and Road Initiative is providing financing to the projects, it means that the member states must pay the loans back. So, there are no free lunches,” said European Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, apparently warning Italy of a debt-trap.
The possibility of an Italy-China BRI bonding drew prominence when EURACTIV.com reported that the two countries were working on a memorandum of understanding, which could be signed during Mr. Xi’s visit to Rome on March 22. China plans to cooperate with Italy in the development of “roads, railways, bridges, civil aviation, ports, energy, and telecommunications” as part of the BRI, the website said.
The leaked memorandum includes new investments of Chinese companies in the Trieste port — a maritime hub in the Mediterranean, which has railway connections with Central and Northern Europe. China is already active in investing in key European ports as part of its Maritime Silk Road — the oceanic spur of the BRI. Cosco, China’s leading shipping company, has already invested $670 million in the Greek port of Athens-Piraeus — the second-busiest port in the EU.
Despite the shrill alarm that has been sounded in the West that China is set to breach a major citadel of the alliance, Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte has stressed that Rome’s traditional partners should exercise sobriety, and not rush to draw any hasty conclusions. “With all the necessary precautions, Italy’s accession to a new silk route represents an opportunity for our country,” Mr. Conte told a foreign policy seminar in the northern city of Genoa. “It won’t mean that the next day we will be forced to do anything. It will allow us to enter into this project and have a dialogue,” he added.
Atul Aneja is The Hindu’s Beijing correspondent.