A route that spans around Eurasia, an infrastructure project that encompasses over 70 countries, a branding strategy, are just some of the ways in which the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been described until now. But the narrative has begun to change lately. From a beneficial strategy, the BRI has become a bogeyman for the Western World.
The main purpose of the BRI is not to build cheap infrastructure around the globe, but to present China as a great, powerful country. In fact, the BRI is a branding strategy to enhance China’s image around the globe.
But starting with the European Union’s (EU) disdain and continuing with the Malaysian problems, the BRI has faded and lost its shine as a benevolent strategy. Although we can’t speak about a clear failure of the BRI, it hasn’t either led to a reshaping of the international system.
But things may change, because Xi Jinping, the president of China and the mastermind behind the BRI, visited Italy and France in order to promote the BRI, and China’s interests abroad. If Italy has already signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) regarding the BRI at the highest level, France refrained from such actions. France’s stance regarding the BRI was predictable. In fact, during his visit to China, in 2018, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, has pointed out that the BRI must not be only “one way” – expressing his disagreement regrading its current implementation. As a twist, Macron already convened German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to join the meeting with Xi Jinping, in Paris. But in an unexpected move, during Xi’s visit to Paris, China signed a 35 billion dollars jet deal with Airbus, in an attempt to lure France on its side.
Italy is very important as a new BRI partner. First of all, the two BRI routes, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Route, meet in Venice, as a platonic finish point. Moreover, Italy is one of the largest and most important EU members, and it can start a domino effect, regarding the signing of MoUs for the BRI in the EU, as it happened with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), after the United Kingdom’s decision to join. But this is a far-fetched scenario, because many European countries are against the initiative, arguing that it didn’t bring in policies that would help partner countries, like: preferential interest rates, a bigger percentage of autochthonous workforce, the guarantee that the country that accesses the loan wouldn’t fall into a debt trap and so on.
Although Italy has recently entered the group of populist and eurosceptic governments, its importance is greater than the other members of this group. First of all, Italy is one of the founding members of the EU. Secondly, it is one of the most important economies of the EU, after Germany, the UK and France, and thirdly, it is just the second country from Western Europe which signed such a BRI agreement.
In order to understand how the BRI works, let’s take a look at what are the BRI projects that China proposed to Italy and how they will be implemented. The Port of Trieste will be the leading topic on the Italy-China negotiations agenda. Once modernized by China, the Port of Trieste could become the new Chinese maritime gateway to Europe, competing with the Port of Piraeus. Longing to have the same destiny as the Port of Piraeus, Italian officials are hoping to transform the Port of Trieste into an infrastructure hub. During Xi’s visit, Italy and China signed more than two dozen agreements in different areas, which were evaluated at 20 billion euros (22.62 billion dollars). The two countries also agreed to the largest return of cultural relics in the past 20 years, of almost 800 Chinese relics which were seized in Italy in 2007, because of the suspicion of illegal traffic.
But the Chinese investments in Italy aren’t limited to the Port of Trieste, as ChemChina acquired Pirelli, Bank of China has been present on the Italian market for over two decades, Huawei launched a research center in Segrate in 2011, and as there are many other Chinese companies on the Italian market, such as Haier, Cosco, Baosteel, China Ocean Shipping Company, or Jihua Group, which is active in apparel. Actually, China is very interested in investing in the fashion industry. Italian companies like I Pinco Pallino, Miss Sixty, Sergio Tacchini, Roberta di Camerino, Mariella Burani and Krizia have been fully acquired by Chinese companies. A small amount of Chinese FDI goes to Italian companies like Unicredit, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Intesa Sanpaolo, Generali Assicurazioni and Mediobanca, in which the People’s Bank of China holds up to 2%, and other FDIs to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Telecom Italia, Eni and Enel.
One of the main points of criticism against the BRI is that projects aren’t implemented or they are stuck in endless negotiations. The most important argument that the BRI may fail is the idea that many of the big Chinese projects touted as BRI projects are at a standstill. Italy will have to see whether it can avoid this fate.