Italy’s Deal With China Signals a Shift as U.S. Influence Recedes
For decades, Italy felt the brunt of the Chinese economic juggernaut that the United States argues poses a threat to the financial and political future of the West.To get more business news in China
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China’s government-backed manufacturers, operating on a much larger scale with much cheaper costs, devoured small Italian companies producing machinery, textiles and pharmaceuticals. Chinese knockoffs infuriated its high-fashion brands.
But this month, as the United States continued to engage in a trade standoff with China, and leaders of the European Union banded together to demand an end to unfair Chinese business practices, Italy took another route — China’s new Silk Road.
In a move that signaled geopolitical shifts from West to East, Italy broke with its European and American allies during last week’s visit by President Xi Jinping of China, and became the first member of the Group of 7 major economies to officially sign up to China’s vast new One Belt One Road global infrastructure project.
“This is not being isolated from Europe, this is Italy leading,” Michele Geraci, Italy’s under secretary for economic development, and the driving force behind the deal, said in a telephone interview from China’s southern Hainan province.
“And when you lead,” he added, “you do need to be alone for a split second. But this bit is going to be very short.”
Italy’s transactional tradition in trade and foreign policy, its anti-establishment government’s antagonism toward the European Union, the failure of the United States to intervene effectively and China’s expertise in exploiting political dysfunction — all of those things contributed to the making of the deal.
So, too, did Italy’s desperation for investment, access to China’s enormous markets and anything resembling an economic uptick.
But Italy’s keen sense of history and awareness to the shifts of great powers also may have had something to do with it.
While the United States has been a close ally since World War II and is home to an enormous Italian diaspora, Italy is no stranger to China.
Ancient Romans prized Chinese silk and the Chinese valued Roman glass. Marco Polo captivated the West with his turn-of-the-14th-century tales of trading with the wealthy East, and the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci produced a map of the world in Chinese characters that revealed European exploration to East Asia.Now as the United States has withdrawn from the world, China is front and center on Italy’s map again.
This week, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy said that as China exerts a stronger influence on the world’s economy, it is going to exert “an increasing influence also at the political level.”
Mr. Conte was speaking at an event in Rome held by a Jesuit magazine to discuss the Vatican’s own breakthrough deal last year with China, in which Pope Francis made concessions to the Chinese government in order to bring all the Chinese bishops into communion with Rome, and to gain more access to the world’s most populous country.
In front of an audience of top diplomats, prelates and government officials, all eager to learn more about China, Mr. Conte spoke admiringly of China’s efforts to become a world leader in “technology and in innovation, leadership that we know is very contested by the United States.”