With Brussels and Washington helplessly looking on, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian Prime Minister signed a historic memorandum of understanding Saturday morning in Rome that made Italy the first founding EU member, and the first G-7 nation, to officially sign on to Beijing's "One Belt, One Road" economic development initiative - one of President Xi Jinping's signature ventures which many have called China's shadow project to re-colonize the world's poorer nations.
Along with the MoU, the two leaders signed development deals covering everything from port management, to science and technology, to e-commerce to soccer that were reportedly worth up to $20 billion.
Though OBOR (or BRI) has promised to strengthen trade links between the West and East, it has been derided in Washington and Europe as "debt trap diplomacy" and a neocolonial project by Vice President Mike Pence, and others.
Xi's trip to Italy, the first leg on a six-day European tour, coincided with Brussels' decision to take a more hard-line stance against the Chinese. During a review of its China policy last week, the European Union proposed "10 actions" to member states, including requiring "reciprocity" for market access, and highlighting purported national security risks stemming from Chinese investment in "critical assets, technologies and infrastructure."
Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission and Brussels' unelected bureaucrat-in-chief, described China as a "competitor, a partner, a rival," during remarks on Friday.
In what appears to be a bid to assuage the growing trepidation in Brussels over China's strengthening ties with Italy, and several eastern and central European states, Xi has reportedly asked Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to join him during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron planned for Tuesday.
Meanwhile, to commemorate China's first colonial anchor in continental Europe, during a press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Friday, Xi said "both countries should strengthen cooperation in infrastructure, ports and logistics, maritime transportation and other areas, so that the great potential can be realized."
Among the 30 or so agreements signed were two port management deals between China Communications Construction and the ports of Trieste, situated in the northern Adriatic Sea, and Genoa, Italy’s biggest seaport. While Genoa is a long-established port, Trieste has the most potential for China, Italian government sources earlier told the South China Morning Post.
The port is strategically important for China because it offers a link from the Mediterranean to landlocked countries such as Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Serbia, all of which are markets Beijing hopes to reach through its belt and road programme.
According to SCMP, other deals signed cover areas including satellites, e-commerce, agriculture, beef and pork imports, media, culture, banking, natural gas and steel. The two countries also agreed to boost cooperation on innovation and science, increase bilateral trade and set up a finance ministers’ dialogue mechanism.
After the signing, Chinese media celebrated Italy's "pragmatic" decision, and predicted that it wouldn't be the last western power to side with Beijing.
Italy endorses Belt and Road, the first G7 country to do so, but I don't think it will be the last. Attitude toward Belt and Road can be a litmus test to see to what extent Western countries can emancipate their minds and adopt pragmatic international thinking. https://t.co/0Gx6iqIVNv— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) March 23, 2019
Though Italy is directly defying Washington's warnings about the 'national security threat' endemic to doing business with Chinese state-backed companies, with Italy's economy mired in recession, and the outlook for growth dim, Beijing has offered Rome's ruling populists something that Brussels and the West haven't been willing, or able, to offer: An unprecedented economic boon, as we explained earlier today. Now, the question is, just how hard the US and Brussels will recoil at Italy's ruling populists for allowing Beijing to claim a critical stake in the heart of Europe's continent.