Italy became the first G7 nation to sign up for Beijing’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. The deal was struck amid warnings from Rome’s EU partners against negotiating with China alone.
The memorandum of understanding was signed during Chinese leader’s Xi Jinping three-day trip to Rome. The nations also struck additional deals, including in the steel and energy sectors.
Endorsing Beijing’s massive infrastructure project, Italy hopes to boost its economy by gaining access to the Chinese market. Former Italian Prime Minister Franco Frattini earlier told the press that Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative holds “very high significance” for Rome, and partnership with China is aimed “to maximize European interests.”
His remarks were later echoed by President Sergio Mattarella who said that the ‘new Silk Road’ linking Europe to China should be used not only for the exchange of goods but “long-term solutions to common problems and future projects.”
Beijing, meanwhile, is making efforts to bolster trade with EU countries as it faces a standoff over tariffs with the US. “We want to revitalize the ancient Silk Road in order to better share the fruits of humanity’s progress,” Xi Jinping told reporters on Saturday, referring to his country’s ambitious plan to build land and sea transport routes to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
The full details of the contracts were not disclosed but reports suggest they can be worth up to €20 billion (US$22.6 billion). Chinese media wrote that the port cities of Genoa, Trieste, Ravenna, and Palermo may be included in Rome’s plan to attract Chinese shipping and investment.
Italy’s willingness to foster ties with China became a source for concerns among some partners in the EU, who see Beijing as a powerful rival. “The time of European naiveté” and an “uncoordinated approach” towards Chinese influence is over, French President Emmanuel Macron warned on Friday, adding that Beijing “took advantage of our divisions.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte noted that certain deals with China “can present a problem” for Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that everyone must remember that the EU and China “are not just partners, but also competitors,” saying it would be better if the member states negotiated with Beijing as single bloc.