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Italian merchandise made in China. Photo supplied

Italy joins China’s New Silk Road initiative

Last month, Italy signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China over the new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the new Silk Road project.

Published: April 3, 2019, 8:04 am

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    Some 29 deals, ranging from access to Chinese markets for Italian energy and engineering firms, to increased cooperation between financial and tourist companies, were signed between the two countries estimated to be worth €2.5 billion.

    But US National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis quickly weighed in to warn Italy against its involvement in the BRI, and EU budget commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, proposed an EU veto over Chinese infrastructure investments in member states.

    At the same time, German foreign minister Heiko Maas claimed Italy’s move towards China threatened the security and continued existence of the EU: “We can only survive if we are united [as the EU].”

    The recent document of the EU Commission EU-China: A strategic outlook, China is no longer a “strategic partner” but a “negotiating partner” as China has become an “economic competitor” and a “systemic rival” in promoting alternative models of governance.

    The EU Council met on March 22 to plan a common EU strategy toward China, ahead of the EU-China Summit to be held on April 9. The next day however, the Italian government signed the MoU with Beijing to officially become a member of the BRI.

    The EU Commission’s Strategy on Connecting Europe and Euro-Asia, is a document that completely ignores the BRI, but before Italy, 13 other EU member states had signed bilateral agreements with Beijing, officially becoming members of the BRI.

    The “16+1” platform include 11 EU member states and five candidate countries — all in Central and Eastern Europe. Also Greece (August 2018) and Portugal (January 2019) have signed on as members of the BRI.

    Ultimately, Italy represents the most important strategic player for the Chinese flagship project of the “Five Ports” initiative involving the Italian ports of Venice, Trieste, and Ravenna, plus Capodistria (Slovenia) and Fiume (Croatia), linked together by the North Adriatic Port Association (NAPA).

    Even if Italy is not the first EU member to become a member of the BRI, it is the largest EU economy, and the only G7 member.

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