Source: Global Times Published: 2019-3-22
China and Italy are scheduled to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on Saturday during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the country, which experts believe will have a positive demonstration effect on other European countries.
Xi started visiting Italy, Monaco and France on Thursday. During a meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Friday, Xi called for the two sides to enhance practical cooperation and joint efforts to build the Belt and Road Initiative.
He said China is willing to import good quality products from Italy and encourage more Chinese enterprises to invest in Italy.
While expressing support for the BRI, Mattarella noted that the initiative will facilitate the interconnection and common development of Eurasia and rejuvenate the ancient Silk Road.
During Xi's visit to France, China and France will jointly hold a global governance forum, inviting people from all walks of life in China and France to exchange views on upholding multilateralism and the multilateral trading system, improving global governance, responding to global challenges and co-construction of the BRI.
Xi's visit is likely to inject new impetus into China-EU relations and has attracted close attention around the world, in part due to Italy's expected signing of the MOU.
While the move could rattle the US and EU, Italy has insisted in joining the BRI in the hope of reviving its sluggish economy.
Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Beijing-based independent think tank Center for China and Globalization, said that despite mixed feelings toward the BRI among some European countries, Italy's willingness to become the first G7 country to endorse the BRI will exert a positive influence, as did the UK's decision to become the first G7 country to join the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015.
"Since Italy is a pivotal country in the EU, the participation of Italy will draw greater interest from other member countries. In addition, Italy can bring some advanced concepts and practices of the EU to the BRI," Wang Huiyao said.
Wang Yiwei, director of Renmin University of China's Institute of International Affairs, told the Global Times that co-construction of the Belt and Road Initiative isn't only an opportunity for Italy, but also for Europe.
"It will create substantial opportunities for the economic revival of Europe," he said.
Portugal was the first Western European country to formally endorse the BRI, after it signed an MOU with China on jointly advancing the construction of the initiative on September 5, 2018, during President Xi's visit.
Xi has made a number of visits to Europe, Asia and Africa to promote BRI cooperation projects since he proposed the initiative in 2013. MOUs were signed during these visits. The trips facilitated the understanding that the BRI is for the common development of the world.
Xi's previous visits to Central and Eastern Europe have accelerated the development of BRI in the region. "Under the 16+1 cooperation plan between CEE [Central and East European] nations and China, multiple countries have signed MOUs with China to jointly build the BRI," Wang Yiwei said.
So far, the governments of 16 Central and Eastern European countries have signed memoranda of understanding on BRI cooperation with China.
Currently, 171 cooperation agreements have been reached with 123 countries and 29 international organizations under the BRI.
"This trip will make Belt and Road Initiative the most frequently cited words in these three countries," Wang Yiwei said of Xi's visits to Italy, France and Monaco.
Wang Yiwei said the BRI could amplify the outcomes of European integration and help solve its shortcomings.
"The EU cares about markets and uses its Cohesion Fund to subsidize less developed members. But it's hard for the new member states to meet high market standards, creating a gap between east and west, north and south, and old and new members," he said.
"China's cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe can better integrate them into EU and help them meet EU standards," he added.
The many European countries joining the BRI indicate its rising popularity and the dividends the initiative can generate, said Wang Yiwei.
Some European countries and cities have already become pivotal to the BRI. Many Eastern European countries have become the forerunners of Europe-Asia interconnectivity and have gained an extra edge over their European peers.
Cities including Prague and Budapest have opened multiple air routes to China, to become regional aviation hubs. China-Europe freight trains have also energized the logistics industries of countries and cities along the route.
Wang noted that the BRI also provides European countries "easier access" to participate in Asia-Pacific affairs as the initiative brings Europe and Asia closer.
While the BRI can bring foreseeable benefits to Europe, there are still concerns within the EU, including pressure from the US which is unwilling to see its long-time allies join the China-proposed initiative.
Allegations of debt traps have fueled some people's concerns and some also worry the BRI may divide Europe.
In a Guardian interview, Manlio Di Stefano, an undersecretary at the Italian foreign ministry and M5S member, dismissed some European countries' fear about the BRI, saying that "many EU countries already have big commercial agreements with China, so to me this discussion seems a little hypocritical."
The BRI "is a collaborative initiative that will allow Italy to export more and to participate in the infrastructure for BRI … It will definitely be a good thing for the Italian economy," Stefano told the Guardian.
The best way to dismiss these concerns from the West is to build a multilateral system, like the AIIB, in which people from different countries work together to develop the BRI, said Wang. "In the future, it will be good to establish an international committee to monitor BRI projects," he said.
Wang Yiwei is a senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.