G7 nation Italy considers signing up to Belt and Road

Though no firm commitments have been given, the possible involvement of Italy in the Belt and Road may cause disquiet in some quarters, despite reassurances from the government

The Italian government is in talks with Beijing over the possible signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on participation in the Belt and Road initiative.

Although European Union (EU) countries including Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Poland and Portugal have already signed up to the Belt Road, Italy would be the first G7 country to do so. The G7 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, and represents a longstanding club of some of the wealthiest democratic nations on the planet.

Such a move would be met with unease in Brussels. But the current Italian government, which is a populist coalition which includes the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the right-wing Lega (League), already has a strained relationship with EU institutions, and is unlikely to pay much attention to their objections. 

The US government has already registered its opposition. White House National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said on Twitter that "Italy is a major global economy and great investment destination. No need for Italian government to lend legitimacy to China's infrastructure vanity project."

Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Italy during March 22-24, and an agreement might be concluded in time to be signed during his stay.

Michele Geraci, undersecretary in the Italian Economic Development Ministry, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that the negotiations on the wording of the MoU were still in progress.

He explained that the MoU would simply set out a framework for possible areas of cooperation, with no firm commitments or obligations on either side. From the Italian point of view, the main aim would be to get better access to the Chinese market for products manufactured in Italy.

The Italian economy tipped into recession in the fourth quarter of 2018, and the government is looking for ways to help kickstart growth.

The signing of an MoU with China - even without any firm commitments - would not go down well with all factions in the seven-party coalition government, which rose to power on a nationalist and populist agenda.

One of Geraci's colleagues from his own League party, Foreign Ministry undersecretary Guglielmo Picchi, wrote on Twitter that he did not think that Italy should proceed with an agreement on the Belt Road.

Picchi specifically referred to national security issues, such as allowing Chinese participation in building Italy's 5G telecom infrastructure.

On March 6, Lu Kang from the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed US criticism of Italy's plan to join the Belt Road as "ridiculous".

Answering questions at a regular Foreign Ministry press conference, Lu said that "Italy, as a major country and economy in the world, is clear about its interests. It could make its own policies and decisions."

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said last week that he was willing to attend the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, which will be held in late April in Beijing.

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