Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy – Europe’s third and the world’s eighth largest economy – has taken place at a most favorable juncture in relations between the two countries though raising a few eyebrows among the South European nation’s traditional allies.
Concerns have been voiced about a memorandum of understanding Italy and China signed during Xi’s visit putting the seal on Italy’s official involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s massive infrastructure project designed to connect Asia, Africa and Europe through a “belt” of overland corridors and maritime routes.
Some European politicians and opinion-makers are speculating that China aims to hold sway over Italy by pouring in large amounts of money and gaining control of infrastructure projects. Washington has warned Rome against lending legitimacy to what it describes as “China’s infrastructure vanity project.”
It is of course a misleading representation of Italy’s interest in being part of BRI for the indubitable economic gains it can reap from it and the possibility of availing itself of China’s investments and technological inputs.
Italy’s formal BRI engagement has sprung from the thriving bilateral relations the two nations have been forging, particularly in the last few years.
The state visit to China by Italian President Sergio Mattarella in February 2017 and the participation of then Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May 2017 – the only head of government of a major European country to do so – marked the climax of Italy’s proactive steps to join BRI.
Eight centuries ago, Marco Polo was the first Western businessman to reach China via the original Silk Road opening the way to lucrative trade links between the Republic of Venice and Imperial China. Today, Italy is the first of the seven top Western economic powers to join the 21st century Silk Road project.
This should not come as a surprise since Italy and China are already mutually involved in a large number of economic activities including innovative and advanced sectors such as healthcare, environmental protection, green farming, industrial upgrade, urban planning and sustainable development. Building new interdependencies and leveraging new and old complementarities will allow China and Italy to remain at the forefront of the global economy.
The two nations are united by an ever-growing synergy that reflects the policy of international cooperation and openness being carried forward by the Chinese government under the leadership of President Xi who has committed his country – to quote just one of his many pronouncements – to “continue to foster an open economy that benefits all. Openness brings progress while self-seclusion leaves one behind.”
Deepening relations between Rome and Beijing are also the result of the vision pursued by Italy’s Ambassador to China Ettore Sequi under whose tenure interaction between the countries has progressed considerably at all levels, and Italy’s exports have constantly risen reducing its trade deficit with China.