Italy: Becoming China’s beachhead in Europe?
The ancient Silk Road that once linked China to Italy is coming to life again, said China Daily (China) in an editorial. At a ceremony in Rome with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio last week signed his country on to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—an $8 trillion infrastructure investment plan that aims to create new trade routes spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa. More than 100 countries are cooperating in the initiative, but until last week no member of the Group of Seven developed nations had joined. That’s largely because of pressure from the U.S., which “fears that China’s rise may challenge its leading position in the world.” But Xi’s visit to Rome shows that China is interested not in global domination but rather in lifting up all of its trading partners. Officials from both countries signed 29 deals worth $2.8 billion, including agreements to boost Italian exports to China and Chinese tourism in Italy. Meanwhile, China will invest in Italian telecommunications and the major ports of Genoa and Trieste. “Other G-7 members should keep an eye on how the cooperation between the two countries unfolds, as they will then appreciate the benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative.”
Rome is being played by Beijing, said Burkhard Bischof in Die Presse (Austria). Xi’s smooth words about his “dear Italian friends” can’t hide the truth about the Belt and Road Initiative, which has always been “a project to promote the Chinese economy and to expand Chinese influence in the world.” Italy could now become China’s “Trojan horse” within the European Union, said Sébastian Seibt in France24.com. The country is deeply vulnerable to Beijing’s bribery. Italy needs foreign investment to lift its “economy out of the doldrums after it tipped into recession at the end of last year.” And its populist, Euroskeptic ruling coalition wants to assert Italy’s independence by showing that it doesn’t need to turn to Brussels for subsidies. But in return for its cash, Beijing will expect Rome to defend China’s interests within the EU and oppose measures condemning, for example, its brutal repression of Tibetans and Uighur Muslims. To stop such interference, Germany has proposed giving the EU a veto of Chinese-funded infrastructure deals if they don’t serve common interests.
The Germans can’t be all that concerned about the dangers of Chinese investment, said Cristofaro Sola in L’Opinione delle Libertà (Italy). If they were, why did they agree to transform the western German city of Duisburg “into the largest Chinese trade hub in Europe”? Every week, 30 trains from China arrive at its terminal “and unload clothes, toys, and high-tech electronics and load up German cars, Scotch whisky, and French wine bound for the Far East.” Germany’s total trade with China stood at $230 billion in 2017, while Italy—the EU’s third-largest economy—did a mere $47 billion. Is Germany worried about China undermining EU unity, or does it just want the first shot at any deals with Beijing? ■