Between Washington and Beijing: Italy at the center of the geopolitical chessboard

Par Cesare Sacchetti

Since last week, Italy seems to be in the eye of an unprecedented geopolitical storm. Last Saturday, the US National Security Council tweeted against Italy’s possible signing of the Chinese Belt Road Initiative. According to the NSC, “Italy by endorsing BRI, lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment that will bring no benefits to the Italian people.” Some Italian political analysts lashed out at this statement, which was considered to be America’s meddling into Italy’s national affairs. But why is Washington so concerned about the BRI implementation? Most importantly, why should Italy fear the Chinese BRI project?

What is the BRI?  

The BRI is an infrastructural project launched in 2013 by the Chinese President, Xi Jin Ping. It aims to connect China to Europe through the building of ports, roads and power plants. The core idea of this ambitious initiative is to widen the Chinese commercial influence by increasing Beijing’s export capacity. But due to several controversies in the last few years, concerns have arisen, especially from Japan, US and India. Their fear is what appears to be, in their view, a predatory form of economic colonization. Many countries unfortunately have experienced serious problems by signing the BRI.

Sri Lanka, for instance, was forced to default in December 2017 on a 1,5$ billion loan signed off with China. Its purpose was aimed at the building of a new seaport on the island. Sri Lanka wasn’t able to repay the massive debt. Consequently, they were forced to cede control of Hambantota’s seaport to China, which was a strategic asset of the country. Pakistan as well raised some concerns about the Chinese-Pakistan economic corridor, fearing that it also wouldn’t be able to repay the debts contracted to Chinese officials for the realization of this project. Similarly, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad refrained from agreeing to a railway project construction, due to its excessive costs for the country.

Apparently, the scheme pursued by the Chinese is to fuel countries through massive amounts of debts, which after amortization, they would almost certainly not be able to repay. Therefore, having no other choice than to default on their loans, these countries are then forced to cede all their key infrastructural assets to Beijing. That way, China achieves a huge globalwide influence, which was probably hardly attainable before the BRI launching. Washington has warned Italy (in a not so friendly way, according to some critics) to avoid its involvement in this predatory colonization strategy.

This week, the Italian Minister of the Economic Development, Luigi Di Maio, issued a statement which clarified Italy’s intentions about the BRI. According to Mr. Di Maio, the BRI for Italy “is not absolutely a way to establish new geopolitical and global alliances.” The Italian Minister added that Italy would agree to adhere to the Chinese project, but only as a way to compensate Italy’s trade imbalances with China.

Italy – between the Washington and China spat 

However, Mr. Di Maio’s reassurances apparently addressed to Washington prove beyond any reasonable doubt  just how highly regarded Italy actually is in the geopolitical chessboard. During the last months, Italy and the USA worked keenly to build a new geopolitical alliance based upon new different balances (as compared to the historical balances of force of the two countries). This is not the first time the two countries have enjoyed such an alliance. In fact, the alliance between Washington and Rome after WW2 played a decisive part in the final defeat of the USSR. Back then, America’s foreign affairs doctrine was completely different from Trump’s contemporary doctrine in geopolitical issues. This is because since the Cold War era, Washington has been the main guarantor of the liberal world order based upon the primary role of the supranational organizations. However, the main mission of Trump’s presidency now is to restore the role of nation states, as was clearly stated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his last address at the German Marshall Fund. His speech made it clear that Washington’s new foes are no longer based solely in Moscow; but in Beijing and Brussels, the capital of the EU. The latter is a supranational organization heavily influenced by the French-German alliance. The former is the country which probably has benefitted the most by the primary role of international institutions, particularly since the 90’s when globalization’s role emerged more powerfully.

As a matter of fact, Italy in this geopolitical spat between nationalist and populist forces, is clearly a game changer. Rome, since the first footsteps of the populist government formed by the League and the Five Stars Movement, has actively sought Washington’s assistance against the EU, which is controlled by Paris and Berlin. So in this particular situation, Italy should certainly continue to pursue its best national interests; but at the same time, it must be careful not to squander the precious relationship it has established with the White House up to now. The current Italian populist government is a breakthrough political force wanting to turn away from the EU neoliberal policies, which has heavily damaged Italy’s economy. Interestingly enough, China appears as a conservative power which has no intention to endanger the globalization core structures. Hence, if Italy wants to move onward from EU globalist policies, Washington still appears as the best ally to fit this role rather than Beijing.