Italy's BRI cooperation shouldn't be dictated by Washington
National flags of Italy and China. /CFP
National flags of Italy and China. /CFP

National flags of Italy and China. /CFP

Editor's note: Bradley Blankenship is a Prague-based American journalist, political analyst and freelance reporter. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

On March 21, 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Rome for a state visit to Italy. During this visit, Xi pointed out the strong bilateral relationship between the two countries that, at the time, had held strong for 49 years. Just days later, Italy officially joined the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and became the first and only G7 country to do so (so far). Now, years later, Italian officials are reportedly saying they are unlikely to renew the agreement next year. 

Going back to that time four years ago, I happened to be in Rome at the time of Xi's state visit to Rome. I was with my family on an ordinary holiday trip and didn't know about the Chinese head of state's visit. But I quickly heard about it and, as he was in the capital, saw an entourage of Chinese people holding Chinese and Italian flags, and a banner welcoming President Xi. It was a nice spring day and the positive energy swelled. 

Having experience with Chinese news services, it quickly became obvious that Chinese people developed a deep interest in Italian affairs. For example, Xinhua News Agency's European edition had long had a specific section for Italian news in cooperation with a local news service in the European country. There, China's flagship news service helped spread the word about what was going on in Italy. And, of course, Italy was (and I assume still is) a major tourist destination for Chinese traveling abroad. 

Things seemed to have been going well. But now anonymous Italian officials have reportedly claimed that a lack of economic benefits is a sufficient argument for not renewing the BRI deal. There has, however, not been an official statement from Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's office yet. But the idea that the two countries don't have extensive economic ties doesn't add up.

China is Italy's largest trading partner in Asia, with the past three years showing strong bilateral trade growth and reaching a record high of $77.88 billion in 2022. And let's also not forget that China was an instrumental partner in helping Italy during the initial stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing personal protective equipment and medicines to the battered country while the rest of Europe essentially turned its back. 

Yet, an influx of Western propaganda is playing on this uncertainty to drive the two partners apart. Of course, there is always the talk about "debt traps" and "neocolonialism" on the part of the BRI – and, indeed, after Italy joined in 2019, European and American hawks alike spread concern that somehow China would gain access to some kind of critical European technology or infrastructure. This is, however, entirely a projection and mostly emanating from Washington's malign influence on the continent. 

Nonetheless, this stigmatization of Chinese investment has apparently succeeded in some way, which is quite a shame. The politicization of these investments has delayed or altogether halted numerous projects, not only in Italy but all over Europe over the past several years. This has, conversely, been to the detriment of Europeans and kept us who live here worse off. We are now lagging behind on telecommunication technology, for example, as well as basic infrastructure for the transportation of goods and people. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin held a regular press conference in Beijing, May 10, 2023. /CFP
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin held a regular press conference in Beijing, May 10, 2023. /CFP

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin held a regular press conference in Beijing, May 10, 2023. /CFP

Commenting on this, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin noted that China and Italy have both seen fruitful results in fields like trade and economic growth, industrial manufacturing, clean energy and emerging markets, after signing the BRI deal in 2019. This is a good point, but what I think is also important to note is that Italy truly has no future under the current transatlantic relationship between Washington and Europe. And that was the entire point of Italy joining the BRI in the first place, which Italian leaders would do well to remember.

From my point of view as a U.S. citizen, who is watching the slow-motion fall of his country from afar (though sometimes up close), a bet on Washington is not a winner. As former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, "It may be dangerous to be America's enemy but to be America's friend is fatal." The country offers nothing in terms of a market for European goods, lacks any serious innovation and is actively experiencing a backing crash brought on by its own inept monetary policy formulators. What benefit does Italy have in falling with America off the cliff? 

To be sure, leaving the BRI would not halt Chinese investments in Italy. But, returning to the Kissinger quote, Italy would do wise to choose the better friend – especially the one who's stuck it out in the toughest of times when others didn't.

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