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Italy to Join China Belt and Road Plan 03/22 06:21

   BEIJING (AP) -- Despite criticisms, Beijing has been steadily gathering 
support for its "Belt and Road" initiative, which aims to weave a network of 
ports, bridges and power plants linking China with Africa, Europe and beyond.

   Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte has pledged to sign a memorandum of 
understanding this week on supporting the initiative during a visit by Chinese 
President Xi Jinping, who has made the initiative a signature policy of his 

   Italy's involvement would give China a crucial inroad into western Europe 
and a symbolic boost in its economic tug-of-war with the United States.

   Italy would be the first member of the G-7, a group of seven major economies 
that includes the United States, to join Belt and Road, following Portugal's 
embrace of the initiative in December. It appears to be driven partly by hopes 
that Chinese investment in Italy's ports might help revive the country's 
traditional role as a key link in trade between the East and West.

   The Belt and Road program is a loosely defined umbrella for predominantly 
China-financed --- and usually China-built --- projects in more than 60 
countries from the South Pacific through Asia to Africa and Europe.

   As President Donald Trump squares off with China over trade and other 
issues, gaining Italy's support is a coup for Beijing.

   "It's important for the Xi administration to show that you have Portugal and 
Italy, two well-known countries in western Europe breaking ranks with the 
western alliance in BRI," said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of China studies 
at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

   China says some 150 countries have signed Belt and Road related agreements 
since the program's launch more than five years ago. A major conference is 
planned next month in Beijing, marking further expansion of the initiative.

   Beijing has marketed the initiative as a way to give some of the world's 
neediest countries a leg up, helping them gain access to more trade and 
investment. But it also helps Chinese companies tap new markets for their 
products while, inevitably, helping Beijing amass greater global influence.

   Some governments including the United States, Japan and India worry that 
Beijing is trying to build a China-centered sphere of influence that would 
undermine their own sway, pulling developing nations into so-called "debt 
traps," that would give China ever-more control over their territories and 

   China already has made inroads in Eastern Europe through investments in 
railways, ports and steel mills. That's stirred fears of a growing divide 
within the 28-member European Union between its wealthier and poorer members. 
Some also worry Chinese-led projects might undercut the bloc's standards on 

   As the U.S. takes on long-standing complaints of Chinese intellectual 
property theft and unfair trade practices, a Chinese win in Italy could boost 
Beijing's arguments that it is ultimately a force for good in the global 

   China's official position is that Belt and Road is solely an economic 
initiative with no political motives. Xi said in a speech late last year that 
even as China moves closer to the center of the world stage, it will never seek 

   "The Belt and Road Initiative in nature is an economic strategy," said Chu 
Yin, a researcher at the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in 
Beijing affiliated with the government and with the ruling Communist Party.

   "China has no intention to become a global hegemon and nor does China have 
such an ability," he said.

   Launched in 2013, the initiative is at heart a business venture, not aid. 
China wants to attract non-Chinese investors but that has happened only on a 
few of the hundreds of projects, which range from oil drilling in Siberia to 
construction of ports in Southeast Asia, railways in Eastern Europe and power 
plants in the Middle East.

   The initiative has run into some roadblocks in the past year, as the Chinese 
economy cooled and the U.S. and others accused Beijing of saddling developing 
countries with too much debt. Some governments including Thailand, Tanzania, 
Sri Lanka and Nepal have scrapped, scaled back or renegotiated projects amid 
complaints that they are too costly and give too little work to local 

   Last year, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad canceled projects 
including a $20 billion railway he said his country cannot afford. And in 2017, 
December, Sri Lanka sold control of its port of Hambantota to a Chinese 
state-owned company after falling behind in repaying $1.5 billion in loans from 


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