Over this weekend, on the occasion of the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit, the Italian Government, despite being divided on this question, has signed the controversial memorandum of understanding. This agreement is part of the ambitious Chinese infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013. With this project China aims to connect itself to Europe, building a network of highways, railways and sea routes, solving the so-called Malacca Dilemma, namely the dependance for their energy importation through the Malacca Strait, whose narrowest point is 2,8 kilometres, which accounts for 40 percent of the world’s commerce.
The European Union and the United States have been really concerned about the deal. What these countries are worried about is that Italy could now be the Trojan Horse inside Europe for a Chinese economic and geopolitical “colonization.” In particular, the biggest fear is related to the data control with the possible commercial agreement with Huawei for the development of 5G wireless systems.
The memorandum of understanding actually is not an international agreement and therefore, is not legally binding. It will be regulated according to European law anyway, but there is concern that China may not respect European standards in the future. Other Memorandums have already been signed with Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Greece, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia. China invested 15,3 billions dollars in Italy between 2000 and 2018, making Italy the fourth major investement country in Europe, after United Kingdom, Germany and France. Investing in the harbours of Genova, Trieste and Venice would mean enhancing their logistic support, making Italy the terminal point for the new Silk Road, a name that evokes the legendary travels of Marco Polo to China, creating a powerful narrative for this agreement, even if sometimes these kinds of comparisons can be misleading to understanding the question at hand.
The main problem is of a political nature, or even geopolitical. In this way Italy is now the first G7 State member to sign a deal with China, giving them a significant political prestige but also really bothering the USA, the traditional and most important Italian ally since the end of Second World War. The deal could mean a realignment of Italian foreign politicy towards Bejing.
Furthermore, this action demonstrates once again the lack of a shared European common perspective, since everyone does what he wants, weakening the general interest and generating confusion and tension. China counts on an unlimited reserve of liquid assets and wants to overtake the USA as the first world power. To negotiate a common deal like the European Union would mean to emerge as a possible third power, counterbalancing the other two, finally taking for ourselves the space we deserve.
It is important to also consider the issue of debt. In Sri Lanka, the impossibility of giving back the money lent to build the Hambantota port granted China its concession for 99 years. Italy, whose economic situation is not at its best in the last 20 years, should be cautious to not find itself in a debt trap. Italy can go solo, but a minimum of strategy and geopolitical vision is absolutely necessary to negotiate in an international context and Rome should really start thinking about a long-term prospective, figuring out the role it wants to now play in this scenario.