The Italian and Chinese governments signed an agreement on 23 March sealing Italy's entry into the New Silk Road project, despite Brussels' reluctance. François Godement, senior advisor for Asia to Institut Montaigne and Marc Lazar, contributor on French and European political and institutional issues, jointly analyze the situation.
Do you think that the signing of a memorandum of understanding on the Silk Road signals Italy’s submission to China? #ViadellaSottomissione
Yes and no.
Let’s start with no. The fact that the Silk Road myth strikes again in Italy isn’t a surprise to anyone: this narrative has been existing since Matteo Ricci. With this agreement, the current government is thus only adding the final touch to a rhetoric already widely used by its predecessors.
But also yes, of course, because Italy is the first major Western economy to break ranks. Last year, at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, almost all of the European attendees refused to sign an agreement, because they felt that there was no guarantee that China would comply with international rules and standards.
Yes, also because members of the Italian government have explicitly presented the signing of a BRI agreement as designed to increase Italian sales to China. It is worth emphasizing that the breakthrough of China's presence in Italy is older than this. Moreover, when Italian polemics attack Germany's hypocrisy, they forget how active China has been in Italy, through major purchases such as Pirelli, as well as in the telecoms and energy sectors, and in the many stakes the country has taken in a wide range of Italian companies.
Meanwhile, the fact that Italy has not entirely yielded to China in the agreement is striking. It has signed a revocable memorandum, and has included European standards, which are mandatory for public procurement in Europe anyway. While China hoped to include 5G, the Huawei controversy pushed Italy to remove 5G from the agreement, and to place it directly under the "golden power", i.e. under the government’s control, with veto power. Finally, the open controversy between the government’s two parties, the Five Star Movement and the League, makes this Chinese victory rather fragile.
The question is brutal. Italy has always had a fairly open attitude towards China in recent years, including with the previous government. Yet what we are witnessing here is a clash between the European Union’s document, which explained that China is no longer a trading partner but a systemic rival, and Italy, which announces an agreement with China at almost exactly the same time. This has created tensions both in Italy and in Europe. Luigi Di Maio is the one who pushed for the drafting of a memorandum of 29 agreements, instead of the 50 initially planned. Italy is becoming an important partner for China, with a series of collaborations in startups, the agri-food sector, e-commerce, archaeology and information. In addition to this, agreements with companies concerning the ports of Genoa and Trieste have also been made.