Italy likely to open ports to Chinese investment

ROME • In a move certain to cause consternation among American officials and leaders of the European Union, Italy appears poised to help China extend its vast global infrastructure push deeper into Western Europe, as part of Beijing's sweeping plan to advance its economic interests and influence around the world.

A first step towards Italy's cooperation on China's Belt and Road Initiative would be the signing of a memorandum of understanding when President Xi Jinping visits Rome this month, Mr Michele Geraci, Italy's undersecretary in the economic development ministry, said on Wednesday.

Mr Geraci, one of the lead negotiators on the agreement, said while nothing was confirmed, there is a "likely, good probability" that Italy will take that step.

The office of President Sergio Mattarella said on Wednesday that Mr Xi will meet him in Rome on March 22 and be honoured with a state dinner that evening.

Mr Xi is also scheduled to meet Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

If Italy takes such a step towards encouraging Chinese investment, it will be the first member of the Group of Seven, the world's richest economies, to actively participate in Beijing's effort to build cargo hubs around the world to fuel its own economic growth.

In recent months, top United States diplomats in Italy have expressed concerns to leaders of Italy's new government about the prospect of such a deal.

NO PREDATORY INTENTIONS

I know China very well, and we are more able than others to spot any risks.

MR MICHELE GERACI, Italy's undersecretary in the economic development ministry.

Mr Geraci said Italian officials had considered those concerns carefully before deciding to proceed.

Asked on Wednesday about the potential agreement, an official at the US Embassy in Rome referred to comments by Mr Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, in the Financial Times in which Mr Marquis had said the US was "sceptical that the Italian government's endorsement will bring any sustained economic benefits to the Italian people".

Mr Geraci noted that there was very little Chinese investment in Italy compared with that in the US, and he sought to allay any concerns about predatory intentions by China.

"I know China very well, and we are more able than others to spot any risks," he said.

He also said the estimated investments, a few hundred million euros in Italy's ports, were essentially minuscule.

"We are in no way tilting the geopolitical axis," Mr Geraci said, emphasising that nothing in the deal would shift Italy away from its alliance with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or the European Union.

He added that cooperating with China on the infrastructure push would allow Italy, which is saddled with enormous debts and stuck at about zero growth, to export more fashion, machinery, food and other goods to China.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2019, with the headline 'Italy likely to open ports to Chinese investment'. Print Edition | Subscribe