ROME — Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with China on Saturday in support of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to weave a network of ports, bridges and power plants linking China with Africa, Europe and beyond.
Premier Giuseppe Conte and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands during a ceremony in Rome after 29 separate protocols of the memorandum were signed by members of both governments.
With the memorandum, Italy becomes the first member of the Group of Seven major economies, which includes the United States, to join Belt and Road, following Portugal’s embrace of the initiative in December.
Luigi di Maio, the minister of economic development, said Italy’s goal is to increase exports to China in order correct trade imbalances and to give a boost to Italian businesses and the economy. He said the value of the individual deals signed on Saturday amount to 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion), with the potential to grow to 20 billion euros.
“Our goal with these accords is to start to rebalance an imbalance with a lot of ‘Made in China’ coming to Italy and too little ‘Made in Italy’ that goes to China,” Di Maio said.
He said that with the deals, Italy expects “a gradual increase in exports and we hope that in the next years we can balance out the trade imbalances.”
Italy’s move appears to also be driven by hopes that Chinese investment in Italy’s ports might help revive the country’s traditional role as a key link in trade between the East and West.
The signing ceremony took place at Villa Madama, a Renaissance villa designed by Raphael, where Xi was greeted with full honours on the second day of a two-day visit to Italy. He was travelling later in the day Saturday to Sicily.
Italy’s involvement gives China a crucial inroad into Western Europe and a symbolic boost in its economic tug-of-war with Washington, where President Donald Trump seeks to challenge China over trade and other issues.
The European Union is also worried about unfair competition from Chinese companies, which are controlled by the Chinese government and benefit from the state’s financial backing. EU leaders in Brussels are preparing a strategy to counter the growing influence of China, which they describe as a “systemic rival.”
Di Maio stressed that Italy remains firmly rooted in its alliance with NATO and EU partners, but insisted that Italy must look out for its own economic interests.
“Like someone in the United States said ‘America first,’ I continue to repeat: ‘Italy first’ in commercial relations,” Di Maio said.
The Belt and Road project has so far seen investments totalling more than a trillion dollars since its launch more than five years ago, and China says some 150 countries have signed agreements related to the project.
Beijing has marketed the initiative as a way to give some of the world’s neediest countries a leg up, helping them gain access to more trade and investment. But it also helps Chinese companies tap new markets for their products while helping Beijing amass greater global influence.
Some governments including the U.S., Japan and India worry that Beijing is trying to build a China-centred sphere of influence that would undermine their own sway, pulling developing nations into so-called “debt traps,” that would give China ever-more control over their territories and economies.
China’s official position is that Belt and Road is solely an economic initiative with no political motives. Xi said in a speech late last year that even as China moves closer to the centre of the world stage, it will never seek hegemony.
The Associated Press