Defying Allies, Italy Signs On to New Silk Road With China

Riccardo Antimiani/EPA, via Shutterstock

ROME — Italy resisted the entreaties and warnings of its European Union and American allies on Saturday by officially joining China’s vast new Silk Road at a signing ceremony with President Xi Jinping of China, a move that crystallized shifting geopolitical balances and the populist Italian government’s willingness to break with its traditional partners.

The agreement will “build a better relationship” between China and Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy said.

Italy became the first of the Group of 7 nations that once dominated the global economy to take part in China’s “One Belt One Road” project, which makes enormous infrastructure investments to move Chinese goods and resources throughout Asia, Africa and Europe.

The Trump administration, which tried and failed to stop the deal, focused in the days leading up to Mr. Xi’s visit on blocking any Italian use of 5G wireless networks developed by the Chinese electronics giant Huawei, which Washington warned could be used by Beijing to spy on communications networks.

Against the backdrop of Italian, Chinese and European flags, a host of Chinese and Italian ministers and business leaders signed 29 separate agreements at the Villa Madama, marking the culmination of Mr. Xi’s visit to Rome, where he was welcomed as a prized ally and, critics said, conqueror.

The memorandum of understanding formalized on Saturday provides a framework agreement for billions of euros in business deals between Italian and Chinese-state backed companies. But analysts said that what mattered more was its political symbolism, as it signaled waning American influence, a rising China and tensions among the founding partners of the European Union.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy’s most powerful politician, was notably absent from the signing ceremony. In the weeks leading up to the agreement, he publicly assumed a more American-aligned and skeptical posture toward the deal, though he did not try to stop it. After the deal was done, he again ridiculed the notion that China was a “free market,” but said that as long as the deal served Italian interests, he was satisfied.

By contrast, his coalition partner, Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, championed the deal and made several visits to China in recent…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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