“Italy Was Right to Join China’s Belt and Road Initiative”

Italian economist and former Undersecretary in the Ministry of Economic Development Michele Geraci was a featured speaker of Panel I of the Schiller Institute in-person conference that took place on July 8-9 in Strasbourg, France (cf. SAS 28/23), on the need for European nations to join with the Global South in creating a new paradigm in international relations. When he was in the Italian government in 2018-19, Geraci was personally very much involved in negotiating the memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Beijing, under which Italy joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or New Silk Road. That agreement generated much irritation in pro-Atlanticist circles, which raised various objections and today oppose its renewal. After refuting some of those objections in his presentation, Geraci explained why, in his view, the BRI is the solution to the strategic crisis.

Objection no. 1: “Italy is the only G7 country to join the BRI”, and thus is isolated. Yes, in the G7 Italy is the only one, but not in the G20 or NATO, in which some 13 countries have joined the BRI! Even in the EU, founding member Luxemburg is a member, and in Europe, so is Switzerland. Compared with the G20, NATO and the EU, the G7 is the least representative, it does not even have a legal status.

Objection no. 2: Italy would “sell off” its ports to China. This is virtually impossible, Geraci explained, because any such sale is prohibited by law. Expanding the ports and making them a terminal of the Maritime Silk Road, on the other hand, would be of great benefit to the country, as they could intercept a large part of the containers coming from Suez, that now have to circumnavigate the Iberian Peninsula to access northern and central European markets. Not to mention the fact that China is already present, as owner or co-owner, in ports belonging to Italy’s allies.

Another objection: by receiving Chinese direct investments, Italy would fall into the “debt trap.” This is ridiculous, Geraci pointed out, because even if China invested 10 20 or even 50 billion euros in Italy, it would remain an infinitesimal percentage in a GDP of nearly two trillion.

Moreover, Italy’s membership in the BRI, sanctioned by Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy, has already benefited the tourism sector. After the Chinese president visited Palermo and made remarks about the city’s beauty, local hotels were submerged the very next day with reservations from China!

But the central aspect of the MoU, Geraci explained, concerns Italy-China cooperation to develop Africa – which is the only way to stop irregular migration. To give a concrete example of how the BRI operates, he then showed a film of his recent trip to Laos and Thailand from Shanghai, where he holds a university chair. Thanks to the new 414-km Boten-Vientian railway built as part of the BRI, travel time between China and the capital of Laos has been cut in half. An important effect of modern transportation is that it also changes the spirit of the people. In Laos, optimism is spreading, which is palpable in the eyes of a foreign observer.

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