China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a land and maritime infrastructure project developed by the People’s Republic of China. The initiative seeks to extend Asia’s influence in Africa and Europe by increasing trade and stimulating economic growth. Xi Jinping’s ambitious aim is to invest in 150 countries, with the construction of ports, bridges, railroads and skyscrapers.
But beneath the surface, the project is a soft-power strategy for China to become a world superpower, outpacing US global hegemony. The majority of countries in the European Union that have signed up for the project are in central, eastern and southern Europe – those struggling the most with slowing economic growth, and whose governments would benefit considerably from inward investment.
But foreign funds come with strings, especially when they emanate from countries under all encompassing one-party rule. They are a short-term benefit that carries a long-term cost: the slow erasure of national sovereignty. Unless trade investments are made on equal terms, they risk creating an imbalance of power, where the more dependent country loses out.
Since 2019 the reality of China’s stance has fallen short of Italy’s hopes. Beijing has failed to reduce barriers for Italian businesses. This has led successive governments in Rome to regard Xi’s trade policy with increased scepticism. At the same time, the EU established a Global Gateway initiative to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, teamed up with US President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to develop a trilateral infrastructure project. This left Italy as the only country in the G7 to have joined China’s Belt and Road project.
The move by Italy had surprised many allies in the West, especially the United States. During the signing of the agreement, Italy’s Five Star Movement was the largest party in government. As an anti-establishment party suspicious of Nato and supposed US imperialism, the Five Star Movement developed a close relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, changing the course of what had been Italy’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. The deal is set to be renewed automatically for five more years in March 2024 if neither Beijing or Rome withdraw.
When Xi visited Rome in 2019 to finalise the deal, he was treated with particular reverence, including attending a concert in his honour by Andrea Bocelli at the Presidential Palace. He told the then Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, that the deal between Italy and China was akin to the “natural principles of the universe”. Xi was referring to the ancient Silk Road, a Eurasian trade network founded in the second century BC, which continued until the mid-15th Century. Italy and China marked the start and finish of the ancient trade route.
But the Italian government’s position regarding the agreement with Xi quickly changed when Italy’s right-wing leader, Giorgia Meloni, became prime minister. She told her 67 counterparts in Hiroshima she might be ready to abandon the landmark Belt and Road infrastructure project. Although she hasn’t yet made a final decision, Meloni is deliberating on the delicate situation of how to exit from the agreement without harming Italian businesses. Such a move would represent a major turnaround in relations between Rome and Beijing. Unlike Meloni’s hawkish position towards Russia and her military support for Ukraine that is met with scepticism from her coalition partners, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, her stance towards China has their unwavering support.
Berlusconi said in 2019 as the time the agreement was being ratified, “China has created a hegemonic project on our economy. An offensive act is in place on the commercial and economic sectors. China is showing us clearly that it has political and also a military plan.”
Salvini also said, “helping Italian economies invest abroad, we’re willing to work with everyone, but if it’s about colonising Italy and its companies, from foreign powers, my answer is: ‘no’.”
Meloni is especially concerned with China’s imperialist track record in its dealings with Taiwan and Hong Kong. “I hope China will soften its tone and will do something concrete to respect democracy, human rights and international law,” she has said. Her fear is that if China becomes even more belligerent in its approach to Taiwan, this will trigger a new Cold War with the United States. Italy will be caught in the middle, incapable of independently choosing a side.
Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a Rome-based think tank, pointed out: “The relationship with the US is really what she’s [Meloni] bet on in order to establish her international credentials.”
Italians who support China’s investment in Italy counter the argument by claiming US influence over Italy is far stronger than that of China today, with far worse cultural consequences, not least the importation of America’s so-called ‘woke’ ideology.
But this is precisely the point: Italy, and Europe, should avoid being thrust back and forth between China and the United States. Instead, Europe should strive for economic, military and political sovereignty. In order to do so, Italy and Europe must pursue a decoupling strategy to avoid becoming a future economic battlefield, with little or no independence.
Alessandra Bocchi is Associate Editor at Brussels Signal