Italy endorses China’s Belt and Road plan in first for a G7 nation

Rapprochement angers Washington, alarms some EU allies


Reuters March 24, 2019
CPEC route. PHOTO: REUTERS

ROME: Italy endorsed China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan on Saturday, becoming the first major Western power to back the initiative to help revive the struggling Italian economy.

Saturday’s signing ceremony was the highlight of a three-day trip to Italy by Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the two nations boosting their ties at a time when the United States is locked in a trade war with China.

The rapprochement has angered Washington and alarmed some European Union allies, who fear it could see Beijing gain access to sensitive technologies and critical transport hubs.

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio played down such concerns, telling reporters that although Rome remained fully committed to its Western partners, it had to put Italy first when it came to commercial ties.

“This is a very important day for us, a day when Made-in-Italy has won, Italy has won and Italian companies have won,” said Di Maio, who signed the memorandum of understanding on behalf of the Italian government in a Renaissance villa.

Taking advantage of Xi’s visit, Italian firms inked deals with Chinese counterparts worth an initial €2.5 billion ($2.8 billion).

Di Maio said these contracts had a potential, future value of €20 billion. The Belt and Road Initiative  (BRI) lies at the heart of China’s foreign policy strategy and was incorporated into the ruling Communist Party constitution in 2017, reflecting Xi’s desire for his country to take a global leadership role.

Warm welcome

Italy’s populist government, anxious to lift the economy out of its third recession in a decade, dismissed calls from Washington to shun the BRI and gave Xi the sort of red-carpet welcome normally reserved for its closest allies.

Some EU leaders also cautioned Italy this week against rushing into the arms of China, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying on Friday that relations with Beijing must not be based primarily on trade.

Di Maio, who leads the 5-Star Movement, says Italy is merely playing catch up, pointing to the fact that it exports significantly less to China than either Germany or France.

Italy registered a trade deficit with China of €17.6 billion last year and Di Maio said the aim was to eliminate the deficit as soon as possible.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2019.

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