Not only the White House, but also Brussels is showing concern about Italy's intention to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). An MOU is a basic agreement that does not include obligations but shared principles for specific forms of economic cooperation. Since the previous Italian government, there has been nationwide interest in the huge infrastructure connectivity project launched in 2013. Poland, Hungary, Greece and Portugal have already signed to join BRI. So, where is the scandal? Many European countries have joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), founded also to support the BRI. These institutions and projects are also open to the US. No one is excluded due to ideological differences.
China-Italy relations have deepened because of the key role played by Michele Geraci — undersecretary of state at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development. There is a new awareness to find opportunities for the two countries to join hands. White House National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis expressed skepticism and warned Italy that BRI is only for China's interests and will not bring benefits to Italian people. "The White House said Rome's plans were unlikely to help Italy economically and could significantly damage the country's international image," the Financial Times reported. These statements are irrational and full of prejudice. They rather allude to an imaginary threat.
Like in ZTE and Huawei cases, the US is working to contain China as much as possible. It goes against the norms of fair competition. The US is working to consolidate its sphere of influence, from the Pacific to Latin America, from Europe to Middle East. Nevertheless, as I wrote some days ago, in many situations "the world does not accept US diktats anymore" especially when they are irrational, go against people's needs, in violation of the UN Charter and contrary to peaceful coexistence. Italy is not going to sign a military agreement, it is not going to develop a strategy against other countries, but it is looking for new forms of cooperation in a radically changing world.
China-initiated projects have already set up civilian infrastructure in poorer regions like Africa and Asia, creating material bases for economic development and improving conditions of living. There is no evidence to support allegations that BRI is being promoted with mala fide intentions. On the contrary, the Chinese projects is finding international acceptance with the number of countries joining it increasing to 123. In addition, there are 29 international organizations in the BRI.
Italy would be the first G7 member to sign the MOU, a fact that is creating alarm in the White House. However, the G20 is more representative of the world economy than the G7, which has become anachronistic. Italy has all the right to exercise its option and choose economic strategies to adapt to a changing world. The geography of trade has changed radically during the last 20 years and China is the leading trade partner of over two-thirds of the countries and regions around the world.
No nation has been forced to join any organization driven by China's economic success. Some BRI projects have been canceled or revised in Southeast Asia. However, most countries are interested in new investment and development plans.
Europe is undergoing a long-term crisis thanks to the US which exported the biggest recession since the 1929 Great Depression. Italy has historical links with the Chinese civilization for centuries, even before America was colonized by Europeans. The Mediterranean basin is regaining importance in the new geography of trade. Why should Italy lose the opportunity to connect its land and ports to the Chinese projects? Is it so that the US can dictate the agenda of other countries?
Critics in an EU led by Germany and France are also clearly hypocritical, because the two countries are Italy's competitors. Germany and France work with China on a bigger scale than Italy. They are yet to join the BRI only for geopolitical reasons, but are members of the AIIB. In addition, Northern European is wary of Mediterranean ports biting into their share of business, hence the aversion to Italy joining BRI.
The reaction to Italy's move to ramp up international cooperation is not only disrespectful, but also irrational. Using the words of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang, we are dealing with "ridiculous remarks." Lu said, "Italy, a developed economy, knows very well where its interests lie and is fully capable of making its own policy decisions." In this changing world, the US seems to be the most archaic and rigid political system against multiple forms of cooperation, resisting a multipolar world order and democratization of international relations. If Europe still confirms its passive subordination to US, it will be detrimental to the world peace.
The author is associate professor of Geography/International Studies (ASN), teaching at the International Institute Lorenzo de' Medici, Florence. He is also member of CCERRI think tank, Zhengzhou, and EURISPES, Laboratorio BRICS, Rome. His latest book is Geofinance and Geopolitics, Egea.