In northwestern Beijing, amid universities, parks and museums, sits a striking structure, resembling a sundial – the China Millennium Monument, erected a little more than 20 years ago to welcome the arrival of a new millennium.
Inside is a gigantic circular sculpture that depicts key figures from 5,000 years of Chinese history. Interestingly, only two westerners are included in this vast fresco: the 14th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo, who entered the service of the Mongol emperor, and the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, a mathematician and astronomer skilled at predicting eclipses.
Significantly, these two men, honored for their achievements in China, were both Italians. Early maps showing President Xi Jinping’s proposed New Silk Road depicted both the overland route and the maritime road from China as terminating in Venice. To Chinese minds, it seemed, Italy was the essence of Europe.
Thus, it was historically meaningful for China and Italy to sign a memorandum of understanding during Xi’s visit last week regarding Italy’s participation in what is now known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
While about a dozen European Union countries, including Greece, Hungary, Poland, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Portugal, have signed agreements with Beijing on the Xi initiative, Italy is the most important, politically and economically, to do so.
The Italian move exposes deep divisions within the European Union. It marks a break in ranks with other major countries, such as Germany and France.
Xi’s visit also offered Italians a glimpse of how China treats the media. The newspaper Il Foglio reported that a Chinese official tried to threaten one of its reporters, telling her to “stop saying bad things about China”.
The reporter, Giulia Pompili, responded by laughing and offering her hand. The official, Yang Han, refused to shake her hand.
While the Chinese narrative for the Xi visit dwelled on friendship and cooperation, the Il Foglio incident struck a discordant note.
During his European sojourn, Xi also went to Paris, where he co-hosted a global governance forum with French President Emmanuel Macron, which was attended also by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Unlike Italy, France has been more cautious in its dealings with China and has attempted to forge a more unified European front.
Such is China’s economic and political influence among certain European countries that in 2016, after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against Beijing in a case brought by the Philippines, the EU was unable to issue a critical statement on China’s actions in the South China Sea because of opposition from Hungary and Greece.
Similarly, in 2017, Greece blocked a statement at the United Nations criticizing China’s human rights record because of the EU requirement for unanimity, which effectively silences Europe’s voice on important global issues.
In his 2018 State of the Union address, Juncker declared: “It is not right that our Union silenced itself at the United Nations Human Rights Council when it came to condemning human rights abuses by China.”
The commission, he said, is proposing to amend the rule requiring unanimity “in specific areas of our external relations”.
Such reform will be vital if Europe is to play the role in geopolitical affairs that is appropriate given its history, population and wealth.
Just a week before Xi’s European sojourn, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, released a paper that for the first time called China an “economic competitor” and a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”.
But while there is a clear desire in Brussels to devise a new China strategy, the member states are divided, with some much more interested in cultivating their own relationship with China than in European solidarity.
While the EU courted China during the financial crisis, in recent years there has been a growing fear that Chinese investments in strategic assets posed a threat.
China’s intentions were also suspect. In addition to annual EU summit meetings, China also holds annual summits with 16 Central and Eastern European countries – including 11 EU member states – in what is widely seen as an attempt to heighten divisions within the European Union.
Last November, the EU’s parliament, commission and council agreed on a regulation to screen foreign direct investment, a move clearly aimed at China.
Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly said: “Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.”
The Chinese dragon is shaking up the world now. In fact, its roar may even wake up a sleeping Europe, which is in danger of sinking into oblivion, economically prosperous but politically impotent.
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