Italy has officially announced its intention to endorse and participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Michele Geraci, the undersecretary in the economic development ministry, suggested that Italy planned to sign a memorandum of understanding to support BRI.
Although the negotiation is not over it might be finalized by the end of March, during the visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to Italy. The visit to Italy would follow the Council of the European Union on March 21-22 in which the EU-China summit to be held on 9 April 2019 would be prepared. The EU countries are debating the development a common approach to China[i]. The European Union has remained split on how to handle Chinese investment and other policies[ii].
Chinese President Xi Jinping initiated BRI, when he visited Central Asia and Southeast Asia in September and October of 2013. The BRI Initiative is jointly building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (thus the Belt and Road name). President Xi Jinping is therefore instrumental in developing and implementing it. His visit to Italy might signify the importance to China of this initiative in Italy and Europe.
‘The Belt and Road Initiative is a systematic project, which should be jointly built through consultation to meet the interests of all, and efforts should be made to integrate the development strategies of the countries along the Belt and Road.’[iii] So, what might be the strategic implications of Italy’s decision to endorse BRI? There is much uncertainty regarding the content of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), that China and Italy are preparing to sign. It can be argued that there is even doubt if the MOU would be eventually signed since it has intensified divisions within the coalition government. Moreover, the move has raised skepticism from United States and a corresponding reaction from China for Italy to stick to its decision. This comes amidst U.S. and China trade tension and the Huawei case.
The strategic implication for the BRI is that it is significantly expanding. It can be argued that its dynamics have changed after engaging and involving Italy, a G-7, an EU founding member and important NATO ally. While other European countries have been involved in BRI elated activities, mainly Southern, Western Balkan and Central European countries, there are very different to Italy. Italy has a unique geopolitical position as well as one of the largest economies in the world. Its involvement in the BRI can provide significant momentum. It can also result in a fragmented EU, G-7 and NATO strategy towards BRI and consequently China. This would however depend on the content and issues included on the MOU. It is too early to say more, since many issues have not been decided yet. Nevertheless, it might be very important inflection point for the Belt and Road Initiative and has significant strategic implications to Italy, Europe and other organizations.
References / Bibliography
[i] Ghiglione D., et al., Italy set to formally endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Financial Times, March 5th, 2019.
[ii] Hornby L., China tells Italy to stick to Belt and Road decision. Financial Times, March 8th, 2019.