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Italy and China.. Will the Agreement on the “Belt and Road” Project Continue?

Italy wants to increase its exports to China, increase Italian investments there, and equal treatment for its companies. In this context, the new Chinese ambassador to Italy indicated that China will seek to import more Italian products.

When China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, visited Italy recently, and met with Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Antonio Taiani, the Chinese official stressed that the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on the “Belt and Road” project between Beijing and Rome has greatly raised the strategic level of bilateral relations between the two countries.

Bilateral relations between China and Italy date back to the Middle Ages when Venetian merchants, including Marco Polo, began opening trade routes, later known as the “Silk Road”, with China, exploring this country and the customs of its people. As for the diplomatic relations between the two countries, they date back to November 6, 1970, and have developed since that time to make China the first Asian trading partner for Italy, as the volume of trade exchange between them reached about $78 billion in 2022.

In 2019, Italy joined the Belt and Road Initiative during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Rome, becoming the first and only G7 country to sign the Memorandum of Understanding on the Belt and Road.

By signing the initiative, Beijing aimed to deepen its economic, tourism, cultural, technological, health and other relations with Rome, and to find markets for its goods, in addition to increasing its presence in Europe and benefiting from the ports of Italy, especially the ports of Tricia and Genoa. As for Italy, it wanted to benefit from Chinese capital in order to improve infrastructure and achieve economic growth.

For a long time, the Italian government had friendly and good relations with China, but the many changes that occurred in the Italian government in recent years forced a more stringent approach towards China. At the time of the signing of the “Belt and Road” memorandum of understanding, Italy was governed by a populist coalition formed by the Five Star Movement and the far-right League, and the government headed by Giuseppe Conte. The Five Star Movement was known to be close to Beijing, but on the other hand, there was no unified position in the government about Rome joining the initiative, as Matthew Salvini, the leader of the League and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, at the time, decided to distance himself from the initiative under pressure from the states. The United States of America, and he did not meet the Chinese president and refused to attend the reception that was held for him. In 2020, Salvini protested in front of the Chinese Embassy in Rome; In support of the people of Hong Kong.

In September 2019, Giuseppe Conte formed his second government, but in February 2021 he resigned from his post after a vote of no confidence in his government. Due to disagreements regarding his handling of a number of economic issues and the fight against the Corona virus, after which Mario Draghi assumed the position of prime minister and one of the most important goals of his foreign policy was confronting Russia and China, strengthening cyber security and allying with US President Joe Biden, the Europeans and NATO.

He also pursued a policy of “golden power,” that is, the foreign direct investment regime introduced in 2012, which allows the government to intervene in corporate dealings to protect national security and strategic assets, which has complicated Chinese investors’ access to strategic technologies. For example, the Draghi government prevented the Chinese company, Huawei, from expanding fifth-generation networks on its territory, without imposing a comprehensive ban, and stopped the acquisition by a Chinese company of the Italian semiconductor company LPE, and the government also interfered in the case of the food company Verisem, which was in talks with A Swiss company largely owned by a Chinese company to acquire.

Draghi also blocked a Chinese company from increasing its stakes in leading Italian technology company Robox. In another context, he opened an investigation into the sale of a drone manufacturing company to two Chinese companies in 2018.

The Draghi government has taken an approach closer to the United States of America. During a meeting with the former Italian Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio, with his American counterpart, Anthony Blinken, the Italian minister said that Italy’s relationship with China is not comparable to its relationship with the United States of America.

Following in the footsteps of her predecessor, the current Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has taken a hard line on China. Prior to the parliamentary elections, Meloni, in an interview with the Taiwan Central News Agency, described Italy’s accession to the “Belt and Road” initiative as a “big mistake” and expressed her desire to deepen relations with Taiwan. These statements aroused the displeasure of the Chinese embassy in Italy, and she also met the representative of Taiwan in Italy in July last year, and in her tweet on Twitter about the meeting with him, Meloni described him as the “ambassador.”

On the other hand, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stressed that Italy should abide by the “One China” principle. In her foreign policy, Meloni follows a line close to the West and the United States of America, as she promised in an interview with “Reuters” to fight Chinese and Russian ambitions in the West, and declared that Italy would not be a weak link in the Western alliance.

Meloni’s hard line towards Beijing is reflected in the members of its government. In his speech at the Munich Security Conference, which was held from February 17 to 19, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Taiani said that his country stands by Europe, the United States of America and NATO. The Minister of Business and Made in Italy, Adolfo Orso, also criticized Germany’s decision to allow the Chinese company “Cosco” to invest in the port of Hamburg, and said, “We will not surrender ourselves to China,” referring to the port of Trieste.

Meloni’s tough stance on Beijing is not surprising. In 2008, Georgia Meloni, who she was holding the post of Minister of Sports, the Italian athletes to boycott the Beijing Olympics; due to concerns about Tibet and “general human rights abuses” in China. After the outbreak of the Corona virus, China was accused of waging a disinformation campaign on a global scale. Ahead of the Italian parliamentary elections, an article published in China in Italy magazine said that the Chinese community in Italy will not forget Meloni’s claim, once, that the Chinese plundered Italy’s wealth.

However, Meloni, who openly declares her hostility to China, expressed, during her meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the G20 summit held in Bali, Indonesia, on November 15-16, an interest in promoting economic interests and increasing Italian investments in China, and criticized the mentality of “Confronting the blocs” in dealing with Beijing, in reference to the alliances that Washington is establishing with other countries to besiege China, such as the “Okus” alliance.

The Italian official stressed the need to cooperate with China in international forums such as the G20 and the United Nations, and accepted the Chinese president’s invitation to visit Beijing. Meloni’s pledge to increase cooperation with China comes as European governments reconsider their relations with China, amid growing concerns about dependence on Beijing. However, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, traveled to China last November; To strengthen economic relations with it, it was also announced that the French President, Emmanuel Macron, would visit China to discuss economic relations between the two countries and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. The year 2023 will mark a milestone in Italian-Chinese relations. The memorandum of understanding on the “Belt and Road” is valid for 5 years from the date of its signing, and it is automatically extended to similar periods. If one of the parties wants to withdraw from it, he must submit a written warning 3 months prior. less than the expiry date of the memorandum, and therefore the Italian government, if it wants to withdraw from the memorandum, must notify China of that at the end of this year. And if the previous statements of the Prime Minister, Georgia Meloni, indicated that Italy did not intend to renew, then during her meeting with the Chinese President she expressed her desire to enhance cooperation between the two countries.

To deepen Sino-Italian relations, the Chinese chief diplomat, Wang Yi, recently visited Rome and met with the Italian President, Sergio Mattarella, and the Italian Foreign Minister, Anthony Taiani. And the way,” adding that there are urgent matters that deserve discussion, referring to the Russian-Ukrainian war. Later, Taiani said that the Italian government is evaluating the issue of renewing the memorandum of understanding with China, and will decide what to do at the appropriate time. Italy wants to increase its exports to China, increase Italian investments there, and equal treatment for its companies. In this context, the new Chinese ambassador to Italy indicated that China will seek to import more high-quality Italian products and support Italian companies to expand their market shares in China. In a move towards Chinese market access, China has certified the Italian-made ATR42 regional turbocharged engine. There is no doubt that the United States of America will pressure the Meloni government not to renew the memorandum of understanding with China. Under the pretext that it threatens Italian national security, and that there is another alternative initiative to the “Belt and Road” initiative launched by the Group of Seven, which is to “build a better world”, and the initiative launched by the European Union under the name of the “Global Gate”. But, on the other hand, Italy today faces internal challenges represented by high energy prices, high rates of unemployment and inflation, high public debt and weak economic growth.

Rome, which today is in dire need of China; To revitalize its economy and develop its infrastructure. The Italian government still has time to think about whether to renew the agreement or cancel it, and the events that could happen globally, especially the course of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Sino-American relations and American and European pressures on them, and internally the growth or decline of the Italian economy may have an impact on Italy’s position on Memorandum of Understanding on the Silk Road.

Source: Al mayadeen