Connect with us

China

The Belt and Road in Italy: Two years later

SHARE:

Published

on

We use your sign-up to provide content in ways you've consented to and to improve our understanding of you. You can unsubscribe at any time.

On 23 March 2019, Italy officially became part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Two years since the first G-7 country became part of the controversial Chinese project, it is time to make an initial assessment of Italy’s highly contested membership in the BRI, writes Francesca Ghiretti.

Three important elements, two external and one internal, have been fundamental in shaping the development of the BRI in Italy. The two exogenous elements are the increasing tensions between the China and the United States, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The former has translated into more U.S. engagement with Europe, including Italy, to secure alignment in policies toward China. A sample result of this effort was the cancellation of a potential collaboration between the Italian Space Agency (ISA) and China National Space Administration (CNSA) to build habitational modules for the Chinese space station Tiangong 3. Another result, which falls in line with steps taken in other EU countries, regards changes that curtail the possibility of Huawei participating in development of the Italian 5G network.

Admittedly, neither example cited above directly relates to the Memorandum of Understanding signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Italy in March 2019. However, both are examples of a change of Italy’s position toward collaboration with Chinese entities, whether public or private, following pressure from the United States. The collaboration regarding the Chinese space station, interestingly, was abandoned soon after March 2019.

Advertisement

The second external element is the outbreak of COVID-19. Last year was meant to be very important for the relationship between Italy and China. In 2020, Italy and China celebrated the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relationship and were meant to celebrate the Year of Tourism Italy-China, now postponed to 2022. A line-up of events and celebrations had been organized for both, which had to be cancelled amid the pandemic. Furthermore, as the first year after the signing of the MoU, 2020 should have seen the initial materialization of the agreements signed on the occasion of Xi’s state visit. It is difficult to say whether in the absence of the pandemic, most of the BRI-related agreements would have materialized, but it can be confidently stated that without the pandemic we would have witnessed further developments. In fact, even with the pandemic, a series of deals materialized, and a limited number of new ones were reached, although mostly among private actors, at least on the Italian side.

The internal element shaping the BRI’s development in Italy is the numerous changes to the Italian government in the past two years. When the MoU for the BRI was signed, Italy was governed by a populist coalition formed by the Five-Star Movement (5SM) and the far-right League. The latter would rediscover its transatlantic call shortly before Xi’s state visit. Within this coalition, a mixture of rejection of Italy’s traditional alliances, Euro-skepticism, naïveté, and interests that pointed in favor of China led to the decision to sign the MoU. In September 2019, however, that government was replaced by a new coalition, which saw the 5SM being joined by the mainstream center-left Democratic Party (PD). The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, remained the same.

The new coalition did not necessarily have a less favorable view of China. Historically, Italy’s left has cultivated very positive relations with China. However, it adopted a less sensationalistic approach and placed Italy back into its traditional alliance systems. Notably, after September 2019, Italy adopted a very European approach in its dealings with China. Italy quietly maintained a rather positive relationship with China, while joining with the other EU countries in occasional critiques of China, and, as already mentioned, adopting a response to 5G similar to its fellow Europeans: excluding Huawei without imposing a blanket ban.

Advertisement

At the beginning of 2021, Italy underwent another change of government. It is now led by Mario Draghi and is even more embedded in Italy’s traditional alliances than the previous government. Given that this government has not been in power long, the assessments that will be made here mostly relate to the government of Conte II, when the 5SM governed with PD.

Keeping in mind what has so far been said, the examples that follow will show that the great majority of MoUs signed between Italy and China were either an expression of intentions that were rarely materialized or the consolidation of an already established relationship.

A notable lack of materialization can be found in the MoUs signed between the port of Genoa and the port of Trieste with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). In brief, so far, there has been a lack of developments in the collaborations in this sector and it seems there will not be any in the future. The new BRI terminal of Vado Ligure, near Genoa, is the result of an agreement that long predates the MoU of March 2019. It dates back to the creation of the joint venture APM Terminals Vado Ligure Spa back in 2016. Furthermore, the joint venture does not involve of CCCC, the signatory of the MoU, but of COSCO and Qingdao Port. In other words, so far, the only development in the maritime sector linked to the BRI involves a project that is not part of the MoUs of March 2019.

Another example is the collaboration between the Italian Space Agency and the China National Space Administration for the mission “China Seismo-Electromegnatic Satellite 02” (CSES-02). This project is also predated the signing of the MoUs. It represents phase two of an already ongoing collaboration between ISA and CNSA on CSES-01. The collaboration in the energy sector between Ansaldo Energia and both China United Gas Turbine Technology Co. and Shanghai Electric Power Corp. was also established before 2019. Other examples of already existing relationships that were formalized by signing MoUs in March 2019 are those of Cassa Depositi and Prestiti, Eni and Intesa San Paolo with Chinese counterparts such as Bank of China and the city of Qingdao.

Some successful developments of the MoUs have been the restitution of 796 archaeological artifacts from Italy to China, which occurred in March 2019. There was also collaboration between the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) and the Alibaba Group for the creation in 2020 of an online Made in Italy Pavilion for Business to Business (B2B) commerce. Finally, one notable successful MoU has been that between the Italian news agency Ansa and its Chinese counterpart Xinhua. Despite the relationship again predating March 2019, it was only after March 2019 that news from Xinhua translated in Italian began to appear on the website of Ansa, labelled as Xinhua News.

All in all, Italy has undeniably witnessed the developments of many of the MoUs signed in March 2019. However, as anticipated, most of the MoUs were the result of collaboration that already existed before 2019 and thus, arguably, Italy would have witnessed the same type of developments even without joining the BRI, with some exceptions. Furthermore, if the BRI is analyzed uniquely as a connectivity and infrastructure project, then only a handful of the examples presented above can be considered as being part of the BRI.

However, the mere fact that alongside the signing of the BRI MoU, other MoUs belonging to diverse sectors were also signed means that not only for China, but also for Italy, the BRI is about a lot more than just connectivity. The BRI is a way to frame the relationship between a country and China. In both cases, one can easily say that yes, the BRI has not been as successful as one would have thought, in Italy and elsewhere. But it is not dead. Authors

Francesca Ghiretti is a research fellow at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), where she specializes in the Italy-China relationship, Europe-China relationship and Chinese foreign policy. She is a Leverhulme doctoral fellow at King’s College London, looking at Chinese FDI in the EU.

China

Climate Action: EU-China joint press communiqué on the fight against climate change ahead of COP26

Published

on

Following their second high-level environment and climate dialogue on 27 September 2021, Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans and Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China Han Zheng reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement and a successful outcome of the COP26 in Glasgow. In a joint press release, they stressed the urgency to act immediately, notably in the light of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They also confirmed that that the high-level environment and climate dialogue will continue to be a key platform between the EU and China to enhance actions and bilateral cooperation on environment and in the fight against climate change. During their last meeting, they discussed various aspects of the global climate and biodiversity crises, with a focus on the forthcoming UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow and on COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming. More details on the discussion are available here

Advertisement

Continue Reading

China

China lodges stern representations with Australia on Taiwan comments

Published

on

By

The Chinese foreign ministry said on Monday (11 October) that China has lodged stern representations with Australia over "inappropriate" comments by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott about Taiwan, write Yew Lun Tian and Ryan Woo, Reuters.

Abbott last week visited Taiwan, which is claimed by China, in a personal capacity, met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, and told a security forum that China may lash out with its economy slowing and finances "creaking". Read more.

"The relevant words and actions by the Australian politician go against the One China Principle and send a seriously wrong signal," Zhao Lijian, a spokesman at the Chinese foreign ministry, told a regular media briefing. "China is firmly opposed to this. We have made stern representations to Australia."

Advertisement

Continue Reading

China

Corruption in China’s chamber of justice

Published

on

The CCP’s former justice minister Fu Zhenghua is now under probe for serious disciplinary violations - he had previously launched a politically motivated prosecution against prominent dissident Guo Wengui AKA Miles Kwok, writes Louis Auge.

In recent days the Chinese Communist Party has signalled its intention to pursue its anti-corruption efforts even amidst the higher echelons of the ruling party’s legal and judicial spheres. The campaign, launched by President Xi Jinping in 2018 with the slogan "Saohei chu'e," meaning "sweep away black and eliminate evil", has targeted a staggering number of purportedly corrupt state actors over the course of the past three years.

China's legislature has hailed the campaign as a huge success – having exposed almost 40,000 alleged criminal cells and corrupt companies, and more than 50,000 Communist Party and government officials having been punished for allegedly abetting them, according to official statistics. And Beijing is showing no signs of slowing down its pursuit of individuals they perceive to have fallen foul of the system – even at the top.

Advertisement

In what is being perceived as the latest show of China's iron fist against corruption in the political and legal system, over the weekend it was announced that Fu Zhenghua, the deputy director of the social and legal affairs committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) - China's top political advisory body - is under disciplinary and supervisory investigation for suspected violations of CCP protocol.

Before taking up his post at the CPPCC, Mr. Fu had served as justice minister and deputy police chief for the Beijing municipal police department, where he was praised by the CCP hierarchy for cracking down on the city's sex industry, earning himself a promotion to executive vice minister for public security.

He was also known for cracking down on prominent and successful families. In 2014, Mr. Fu a conducted what many critics perceived to be politically motivated prosecution against Guo Wengui AKA Miles Kwok, a high profile CCP dissident now living in exile in the United States. Mr. Kwok subsequently revealed that Mr. Fu had ordered an investigation into the family finances of Wang Qishan, the country’s current Vice President, causing rumours to swirl about Mr. Fu’s political future.

Advertisement

The allegations against him failed to stick however – with Mr. Fu going on to be promoted to the position of Minister of Justice – but his path up the CCP power ranks now appears to have run out of road. He is not the only high ranking official to feel the wrath of Beijing recently. News of the investigation came just days after the CCP announced it was expelling former vice minister of public security Sun Lijun, having accusing him of "forming cliques and cabals to take over a key department," and of keeping a private collection of confidential documents.

Regarding Mr. Fu, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) - the ruling Communist Party's anti-corruption watchdog - announced simply that he is under investigation for "serious violations of party discipline and law." The one-sentence statement did not offer any further details into the indictment.

According to CNN, the announcement was welcomed by a wide range of figures online, from rank-and-file police officers and prison guards to investigative journalists, human rights lawyers and intellectuals. No doubt outspoken CCP critics such as Mr. Kwok will also have felt vindicated by the development, to say the least.

In recent months President Xi has stepped up his party’s clamp down on rising political stars and overly powerful officials. However what is unusual about the fate of Mr. Fu's is how loudly and widely – in other words, unanimously – it is being celebrated, both by people working for the regime, and by those who have been subject to its repression.

Following news of his downfall, several veteran investigative journalists said on social media they had been targeted by Mr. Fu for their hard-hitting reports, on topics ranging from illegal detention of petitioners to local government corruption.

"The targets of Fu Zhenghua's crackdown are people at the core of China's civil society. Therefore, the country's whole intellectual sector and the wider public are all thrilled by (his fall from grace)," said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing. "His rise to power represented the aggressive iron-fist approach that has shaped China's governance over the past decade."

Mr. Fu's aggressive approach was also applied to police officers and prison guards, many of whom have been celebrating his downfall on social media. Comments make reference to Mr. Fu’s imposition of draconian working conditions for entry-level officers, such as not allowing prison guards to take breaks during night shifts.

Some analysts have suggested that this series of recent purges demonstrate declining trust from the Chinese leadership in the country's domestic security agencies. In the words of Wu Qiang, “It is very difficult for Beijing to have political trust. This is the biggest crisis in its governance". For critics such as Miles Kwok, it is also a sign of that the fractures within the centre of the ruling party are beginning to widen. Whether it is chasm that can be bridged is anyone’s guess.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending