Italy mulls preliminary Belt and Road deal with China

March 07, 2019 09:32
After falling into recession at the end of 2018 for the third time in a decade, Italy is seeking ways to boost the economy and revive the stalled construction sector. Photo: Bloomberg

Italy is negotiating a preliminary deal to become a part of China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan, in a move that could upset the United States, Reuters reports.

If Italy signs an accord when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the country later this month, it will be “an initial framework”, Italian junior industry minister Michele Geraci was quoted as saying.

However, in a sign that there is no government unity on the issue, another junior minister cautioned against any such move, saying more thought has to be given about national security.

"At this moment, I do not think we should proceed with the signature,” Foreign Ministry undersecretary Guglielmo Picchi wrote on Twitter.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), championed by Xi, aims to link China by sea and land with southeast and central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, through an infrastructure network on the lines of the old Silk Road.

Aside from boosting trade and investment, Xi aims to advance exchanges in areas such as science, technology and culture.

Italian officials say Xi is due to visit Italy from March 22-24.

“We are still negotiating the details of the MOU (memorandum of understanding) and it might, or might not be signed,” Geraci said. “It is an initial framework. It is not a contract, there are no commitments, there are no funds and no obligations.”

Italy fell into recession at the end of 2018 for the third time in a decade and the government is eager to find ways to boost the economy and revive the stalled construction sector.

The Financial Times reported on Wednesday that the US was irritated by the prospect of Italy joining the BRI, and had warned the project could significantly damage Rome’s international image.

“We view BRI as a ‘made by China, for China’ initiative,” the newspaper quoted Garrett Marquis, White House National Security Council spokesperson, as saying.

Geraci said he had not seen any sign the US was annoyed or concerned.

“Our goal does not seem to me to be controversial,” he said. “It is about helping companies do business.”

An Italian diplomatic source told Reuters that Rome is facing “a lot of pressure” from China to sign a MOU, but added that if an accord is reached it would be “an empty box”.

A number of European Union states have signed MOUs with China, including Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Malta, Poland and Portugal.

If Italy signs, it would be the first Group of Seven major industrialized nation to do so, Reuters noted.

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