Reporter's Notebook: Italy's poised to breaks ranks with G-7, raising fears of a Chinese Trojan horse

Chinese President Xi Jinping, in an editorial charm offensive published Wednesday in one of Italy’s leading newspapers, said Chinese youth love pizza and tiramisu. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe is not loving much at all about Xi’s visit to Italy.

The term “Trojan horse” has been bandied about.

Italy appears set to break ranks with the rest of the G-7 by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to join China’s famous “Belt and Road” Initiative. That's a $6 trillion scheme to link East and West for the purpose of enhancing the flow of Chinese goods through international markets.

China has already invested in Italy and all over Europe, but this latest move is different because it legitimizes a project that some critics have said could risk colonizing Europe.

And it has clearly angered Washington, which has called Belt and Road a “vanity project” amid an ongoing trade war with China.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte claimed those concerns were misguided. “The framework of the Memorandum of Understanding on the Belt and Road is purely economic and commercial; it does not remotely put into doubt our Euro-Atlantic alliance,” Conte said.

Italy is in a recession. After the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa that killed 43 people last year, the nation lashed out at the European Union for constraining its budget. It makes some sense that Rome would ultimately turn to Beijing for help.

If it makes good on the MOU with China, big investment is expected in the ports of Trieste and Genoa.

For its part, China buys more than pizza and tiramisu.

In his editorial, Xi also said, “Italian fashion and furnishings meet the taste of Chinese consumers.” That is an understatement. China is, in fact, one of the biggest consumers of Italian luxury goods, so Italy is hoping the Belt and Road will flow profitably both ways.

But professor Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at Renmin University of China, said it's not that simple.

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“This government is thinking very simply. We have little trade with China. It’s time to make up with China. Very, very simple. But international politics are never so straightforward,” Sisci said. “There is a bigger picture and they apparently fail even to see the bigger picture.”

The Chinese delegation to Italy is 500 strong. Xi wrote of his hopes that China and Italy can develop cooperation projects in such matters as ports, shipping, telecoms and pharmaceuticals, and encourage respective companies to operate in their countries.

The Chinese president also said he wants to “reinforce coordination between China and Italy in international bodies” like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

Again, Europe has done plenty of business with China, but this Chinese push into Italy comes at a time when Brussels wants to apply the brakes a bit to Beijing’s frenzy of activity on the continent.

But there are gaps in the message.

Germany has not excluded the possibility of the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei furnishing it with 5-G technology. And Italy originally took the same position, though recently, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the loudest voice in Italy’s coalition government, has pushed back against such a possibility, saying he does "not want his data going through Beijing."

Salvini may ultimately slow his country’s march into China’s arms to an extent.

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“The only constraints are security, the control of Italians’ data and energy,” he said. “I would not like someone to wake up on the other side of the world and turn off the switch.”

In his editorial, Xi paid homage to history and “his dear Italian friends,” recalling Marco Polo, who set off the first real passion for China.

And as the Silk Road tries to remake itself, China and Italy have some 30 additional deals in the pipeline that will either be signed or more deeply explored on Xi’s three-day visit here.