All roads lead to Rome … even China’s Belt & Road

All roads lead to Rome … even China’s Belt & Road

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. (AFP)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a swipe at Washington last week over Italy’s apparent decision to endorse Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the first time any G7 state has backed the $1 trillion plan at the center of a geopolitical struggle for global influence between China and the US.
The mini diplomatic earthquake began when Italian Undersecretary of Economic Development Michele Geraci said Rome was considering signing an “initial framework” accord with Beijing, probably timed to coincide with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy from March 22-24.
While Italy is not always seen as being among the top-tier global powers, the development has significance because of Italy’s continued systemic importance in Europe. It is the third-largest Eurozone economy and poses perhaps the biggest threat to the future of the single currency area.
The news predictably irritated Washington and drew an immediate rebuke from Garrett Marquis, a White House National Security Council spokesman. He said: “We view BRI as a ‘made by China, for China’ initiative.”
Yet it is not only Washington that is concerned, but also Brussels. EU officials are increasingly conscious of Beijing’s influence across the continent, including the so-called “16+1” initiative of China and key countries in Eastern and Central Europe. A number of EU states have already signed agreements with China on BRI, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Malta and Portugal.
Like Washington, Brussels has reservations about BRI, not least given wider frustrations over Beijing’s perceived slowness to open up its own economy, and a wave of Chinese takeovers of European firms in key industries. Yet Brussels has declared it will cooperate with the grand initiative “on the basis of China fulfilling its declared aim of making it an open platform which adheres to market rules, EU and international requirements.”
As well as causing divisions with Washington and Brussels, Geraci’s comments prompted an apparent split within the Italian government itself. Deputy Foreign Minister Guglielmo Picchi said that “at the moment, I do not think we should proceed with the signature.”

Italy’s endorsement of BRI would be a political breakthrough for Beijing, especially since the White House had perceived that the populist stripe of the administration in Rome had brought new spice to bilateral bonds following the positive initial meetings last year between Trump and Conte.

Andrew Hammond

Whatever the true position of the Italian government, it is clear that Rome has been involved in significant discussions with Beijing. In the face of Washington’s slap down of its long-standing ally, Beijing hit back, with Wang saying: “Italy is an independent country. We trust that you’ll stick to the decision you have independently made.” 
His frosty response, and the concern about BRI in much of the West, stems from its immensely ambitious nature. Beijing plans to boost trade and stimulate economic growth across Asia, Africa and beyond by building massive amounts of infrastructure and connecting it to countries around the globe.
Take Pakistan, where Beijing has already made commitments of about $60 billion under BRI. While this is to be largely spent on infrastructure, it has cemented warming geopolitical ties with Islamabad, a longstanding US ally during the Cold War.
In this context, one of the key reasons why Washington will have been so irked by this week’s revelations from Rome is that the Trump team had been trying to form its own strong relationship with the populist government there. Indeed, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who met Donald Trump at the White House last year, was emerging as the US president’s strongest supporter in Western Europe.
Trump last year declared Conte “a really great guy” and predicted he “will do a great job — the people of Italy have got it right.” This affinity appeared to rest not only on personal chemistry but also the alignment of their policy positions on key issues such as Russia and immigration.
While the Trump team, therefore, has a particular perceived reason to feel vexed, if Conte signs the agreement with Xi, the concern in Washington about BRI is bipartisan given the fears of many Democrats, too, about growing Chinese international influence. This was underlined during the Obama administration when Washington raised concerns about the degree to which London was perceived to be cozying up to Beijing under the government of David Cameron. This included the UK’s decision to become a founder member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which is championed by Beijing as an alternative to the World Bank.
Italy’s endorsement of BRI would be a political breakthrough for Beijing, especially since the White House had perceived that the populist stripe of the administration in Rome had brought new spice to bilateral bonds following the positive initial meetings last year between Trump and Conte.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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