Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Selling Italy to Chinese

By Francesca Marino, Author and Journalist | Updated: Mar 23, 2019 19:01 IST

Rome [Italy], Mar 23 (ANI): Italy signed on Saturday a Memorandum of Understanding with China to join the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), becoming the first member of the G-7 grouping of industrialised countries to do so.
The pact was signed here by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping who is on a three-day visit to Rome since yesterday.
The Italian government says the goal of the MoU is largely symbolic and has no legal value, and points out to the fact that other European countries, like Malta, Greece and Portugal, have already signed something similar.
But the criticism in the country and outside has been loud and strong, and not without reasons.
Many analysts and experts, besides those backed by China, are extremely worried about the potential consequences of opening the country to Chinese projects.
Italy is looking for money, and the MoU has been pursued not only by this Government but by the Renzi and Gentiloni governments too.
But while a strategy to attract investments in a country in desperate need to revive its economy is totally legitimate, the cost of attracting Chinese investments and to enter the BRI should have rung some bells.
It did not. And the strategy China has been unfolding for the past few years all over the world and particularly in its neighbourhood countries worked in Italy too.
In the recent past, in fact, China has aggressively taken on the task of raising a support base in political parties, industry, media and academics in countries where it has economic or strategic interests by 'buying' over the support of key functionaries in these sectors.
While in smaller countries this task has been often undertaken by the Chinese embassy, in developed economies China has been using its agents of influence, who are often of Chinese origin, to reach out to their targets.
We have seen the strategy unfolding in Nepal, in Australia, in Pakistan, in Sri Lanka and all over Africa. It worked and is working in Italy too: the number of those praising Chinese money flowing into  Italian land is constantly growing, despite the fact that BRI initiative all over the world proved to be a strangling debt trap for all the countries involved, starting from Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
China has used the brilliant and evocative brand of the “New Silk Roads” to build a 360-degree counter-globalization infrastructure project of sea and land routes between China-Asia, Africa and Europe by investing in ports, inland ports, railways, telecommunications and digital roads.
This is why Beijing has invested $ 448 billion in the last four years in 64 countries, another 117 are planned for 2019.
And these are the numbers fed to local populations, totally unaware of the strings attached to these projects: only Chineses, in fact, benefit from them.
Chinese workers are brought in together with Chinese technology and Chinese money. The local workers are not benefitting in any way from the project and, in the very much boasted CPEC 'test', people have been thrown out of their land with no compensation.
Not only this, authoritarism, human rights violations, disregard for environmental issues are only a few of the 'benefits' attached to Chinese projects all over the world.
But the Italian government seems to think none of this is going to happen in Italy. In fact, they are projecting themselves, with a certain degree of satisfaction and a touch of arrogance, as the next key factor in geopolitical terms between China and USA, without considering for a second that Italy risks to end up badly crushed between the two superpowers.
First of all, it is true, the MOU is symbolic, but Italy is a G7 country hosting a large number of NATO and USA military bases.
Washington is not happy, and so is the European Union, worried about the potential threat both in strategic and economic terms.
The symbolism is heavy, and not a good one. Conte and his masters, Salvini and Di Maio, are totally ignoring the biggest worry of analysts and experts.
Everywhere in the world, the BRI initiatives have been closely followed by Chinese troops and China has been building military bases along the affected routes.
The first and most notorious is in Djibouti, a fundamental bottleneck along the Pacific-Indian-Suez-Mediterranean route, where in fact almost all the major powers are installed, including Italy. Other bases will follow, or, better, they could already be there undercovered.
The Chinese project in Italy, boasted with the same arrogant and mellifluous rhetoric used in Pakistan, could deepen the crisis already perceptible all over Europe and lead, at a point, to a confrontation between US and China: and, according to sources, the hypothesis has already been studied in every detail by the Armed Forces of the two contenders.
The US will never accept Chinese bases at the door.
The containment of Beijing's ambitions already takes place in all dimensions, starting with intelligence and a potential cyber war.
Washington considers the BRI a vital threat - after having long underestimated it - and is ready to strike with any kind of reprisals anyone who opens the door too much to Beijing, especially if it is a historical ally.
And for sure, nobody is happy to see, accompanying Xi Jinping in Italy, the number two of Huawei.
Most probably Italy did not realize fully what was at stake when has been offering golden bridges to China to invest in Italy, including buying parties of the public debt.
This involves the decisive dimensions of networks, new technologies, artificial intelligence, as well as the military sphere.
It’s late, but not too late for drawing at least clear lines, in the MOU, which are not to be crossed and to behave like a G7 nation and not one of those characters in old 50s movies ready to sell, cheating, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain to foreigners. (ANI)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are strictly those of the author)