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Italy and the Belt & Road Initiative

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There has been a growing scepticism with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in many quarters, due to the lack of transparency with regards to terms and conditions as well as the economic implications for countries which are part of the project. A report published by the Center for Global Development (CGD) Washington in April 2018 flagged 8 countries (including Pakistan, Maldives, Laos and Djibouti where the level of debts are unsustainable.

Apart from red flag raised by a number of researchers, the removal of Pro-China leadership in countries like Malaysia, Maldives and Sri Lanka has also resulted in the problems of the BRI project, and China’s economic dealings (which are clearly skewed in favour of Beijing) with other countries drawing more attention.

The most vocal critic of China’s economic links has been by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. During a visit to China in August 2018, Mahathir not known to mince his words while alluding to China’s trade relations with poorer countries could lead to ‘a new version of colonialism’. Mahathir later on denied that his statement was targeted at China or the BRI. The fact is that the Malaysian Prime Minister did scrap projects estimated at well over 20 Billion USD (which includes a rail project, East Coast Link as well as two gas pipelines).

Top officials in the Trump Administration, including US Vice President Mike Pence, have also been critical of the BRI project for a variety of reasons. The major criticism from US policy makers has been the economic ‘unsustainability’ of the project as well as the point that the project is skewed in favour of China.

Italy to join BRI

As the debate carries on with regard to the BRI,no body can ignore the fact, that Italy (the world’s 8th largest economy) is likely to become the only G7 country to join the BRI.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy, later this month (March 22-24) a Memorandum of Understanding MOU, and could be signed. Senior officials in the government have been cautious, and have emphasised on the fact, that the MOU would be ‘non-binding’. Commenting on the status of the MOU, Undersecretary in Italy’s economic development ministry, Michele Geraci stated:

 ‘…it is possible that it will be concluded in time for [Xi’s] visit.”

Geraci a Sinophile, who has spent a fair amount of time in China, is said to be driving the ruling coalition’s policy (The Five Star Movement (M5S) and right leaning Lega joined hands to form a government in June 2018) towards China.

Italian PM, Giueseppe Conte while addressing a seminar, in Genoa, made the point, that while joining BRI would open new opportunities and horizons for Italy, Rome was likely to be cautious, and would not do anything in haste.

Current state of Italy-China relations

If one were to look at the state of China-Italy bilateral relations. China-Italy bilateral trade reached nearly 50 Billion USD in 2017. China is Italy’s largest trading partner in Asia. It would be pertinent to point out that ties between both countries are not restricted to the economic sphere.  There has also been a rise in Chinese tourists visiting Italy (over 1.5 million annually). Even in the sphere of education, linkages between both countries are rising. As of 2017, there were over 6,000 students Italian students in China and nearly 20,000 Chinese students in Italy.

The current government has given immense attention to China, and there have been 3 high level visits ever since the ruling coalition took over the reigns last June (senior officials who visited include – Italy’s Finance Minister Giovanni Tria, Geraci, and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio — who also holds the charge of economic development minister). The Italian PM is also likely to attend the second Belt and Road Forum to be held in Beijing in April 2019.

The clear objective of becoming part of BRI, according to senior officials, is to get access for its goods and to also leverage its geo-political location within Europe.  During his visit to China in September 2018, the Italian Deputy PM had spoken in favour of Italy joining the project. The Deputy PM who had gone to attend the 17th Western China International Fair had made the point that Italy was identifying the possible avenues for participation in the project, and that the G7 country could benefit immensely, if it successfully harnessed it’s own economic and geographical strengths.

In  2018,the inaugural meeting of Italy’s China Task Force was held in Rome (this is headed by Michele Geraci). The key objectives of this task force are; to give an impetus to bilateral economic cooperation (to give a boost to Chinese investments in Italy, giving a push to Italian exports to China, cooperation in Research and Development) and also to explore how Italian companies could seek financing under the BRI initiative.  Italy has also been seeking to expand cooperation with China in Africa (the argument is that African growth will help in putting a check on immigration to Italy). Interestingly, former PM Paolo Gentiloni had urged EU and US to invest more in Africa, and to counter China’s growing influence.

Scepticism with regard to Italy-China economic relations

While the government has unequivocally spoken out in favour of this decision. Many argue, that Italy will need to develop it’s own infrastructure – especially the rail system, if it needs to benefit significantly from BRI. Given Italy’s current fiscal situation, too much investment into infrastructure seems highly unlikely. With China having invested in Piraeus (Greece) it is important that the Venice Port becomes more competitive. This will require not just economic investments, but strategic thinking.

There are those who also argue, that the current Italian government has given too much attention to Beijing, at the cost of relations with other countries. The China policy, it is argued will also have an adverse impact on EU’s common China policy

Unlike other Western countries, Italy has not given a very strong reaction on the Huawei controversy

Italian Deputy Prime Minister was quick to state that “We are in no way tilting the geopolitical axis,”

Italian PM also made it clear, that while Italy will join the BRI, it will ensure that this benefits both, and that EU norms and values are not forgotten.

It is argued, that by reaching out to Euro skeptics in EU, Beijing is trying to create divisions within the bloc. Countries like Hungary and Greece, which are being increasingly dependent upon China, have taken a different stance from other EU countries on issues such as The South China Sea and Human Rights violations.

The EU has been critical of the BRI..

It has even come up with its own version of BRI. In September 2018, EU’s strategy for connecting Europe and Asia. Senior EU officials including High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini made it clear, that EU’s strategy was to enhance connect between Europe and Asia, and to ensure it was beneficial for both. The project would also take into account financial and environmental sustainability.

US reaction to Italy joining BRI

US also took note of Italy joining BRI. As expected, the US was critical of Italy’s decision to join the BRI. A White House National Security Council spokesperson, Garrett Marquis in a media interview stated:

“We view BRI as a ‘made by China, for China’ initiative,”

As mentioned earlier, senior members of the Trump Administration too have flagged the shortcomings of the BRI project and how the dependence of certain countries in Asia and Africa is rising.

Conclusion

It is important for countries within the EU as well as other countries sceptical of the BRI to adopt a more pragmatic stance towards Italy’s decision. One must also keep in mind the fact, that while speaking about signing an MOU with China it has left room for manouevre. It is also important for countries vary of increasing Chinese influence to themselves stand up for liberal values, and greater economic integration. One of the reasons for Beijing’s increasing economic clout, is increasing the inward looking economic policies being adopted by a number of countries – not just the US. At the January 2017, World Economic Forum (WEF) Chinese President Xi Jinping had warned against the increasing scepticism with regard to globalisation. Said the Chinese President:

‘Some people blame economic globalization for the chaos in our world. Economic globalization was once viewed as the treasure cave found by Ali Baba in the Arabian nights, but now it has become the Pandora’s Box.’

Very few leaders have spoken up on this issue forcefully enough. Similarly, if the US has flagged problems of the BRI it should be willing to invest in an alternative narrative. So far even if one were to look about the narrative of a ‘Free and Fair’ Indo-Pacific, Washington has not made significant financial commitment (In July 2018, the Trump administration did make a commitment of 113 Million USD for areas like energy, digital economy and infrastructure). While it is believed that the US IDFC (International Development Finance Corporation) created through BUILD (Better Utilisation of Investment leading to development act)  may be able to give the much required boost to some important connectivity projects, but it’s total budget estimated at 60 Billion USD pales in comparison to China’s budget.

The only country which has attempted to put up a cohesive alternative to BRI is Japan’s ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ (PQI). Japan along with Asian Development Bank will be providing over 100 Billion USD (50 Billion from Japan and 50 Billion from ADB) for infrastructure in Asia. Japan’s economic presence in Africa is also steadily rising, though it is assisting Africa in a number of other areas like health, education through Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) ( which is co-hosted by the Government of Japan, The World Bank, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the African Union Commission and the United Nations).

While it is true, that globalization may not be perfect and some scholars went overboard, but there is also no denying the point that populist policies which have favoured economic isolationism may have helped in achieving political successes, but their limitations are beginning to show in the economic sphere. It is for this reason, that even leaders like Mahathir who are critical of Chinese projects have stated, that if he were to chose between China and an ‘unpredictable US’ he would choose the latter.  Italy on its part must be cautious and should astutely balance its own interests and not allow Beijing to have a free run. Differences with the EU, should not lead to Italy and other countries becoming excessively dependent upon China.

There is no denying the fact, that Italy’s acceptance of the BRI has important implications which go well beyond EU.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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Europe

Europe tells Biden “no way” to Cold War with China

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Amidst the first big transatlantic tensions for the Biden Administration, a new poll shows that the majority of Europeans see a new Cold War happening between the United States and China, but they don’t see themselves as a part of it.

Overwhelmingly, 62% of Europeans believe that the US is engaged in a new Cold War against China, a new poll just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations found. Just yesterday US President Joe Biden claimed before the UN General Assembly that there is no such thing and the US is not engaging in a new Cold War. So, Europeans see Biden’s bluff and call him on it.

The study was released on Wednesday by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev at the European Council on Foreign Relations and found that Europeans don’t see themselves as direct participants in the US-China Cold War. This viewpoint is most pronounced in Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Portugal and Italy, according to the study. The prevailing view, in each of the 12 surveyed EU member states, is one of irrelevance – with respondents in Hungary (91%), Bulgaria (80%), Portugal (79%), and Austria (78%) saying that their country is not in a conflict with Beijing.

Only 15% of Europeans believe that the EU is engaged in a Cold War against China. The percentage is so low that one wonders if there should even be such a question. It is not only not a priority, it is not even a question on the agenda for Europeans. Even at the highest point of EU “hawkishness”, only 33% of Swedes hold the view that their country is currently in a Cold War with China.  Leonard and Krastev warn that if Washington and Brussels are preparing for an all-in generational struggle against China, this runs against the grain of opinion in Europe, and leaders in Washington and Brussels will quickly discover that they “do not have a societal consensus behind them”.

“The European public thinks there is a new cold war – but they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Our polling reveals that a “cold war” framing risks alienating European voters”, Mark Leonard said.

The EU doesn’t have the backing of its citizens to follow the US in its new Cold War pursuit. But unlike the views of the authors of the study, my view is that this is not a transatlantic rift that we actually have to be trying to fix. Biden’s China policy won’t be Europe’s China policy, and that’s that, despite US efforts to persuade Europe to follow, as I’ve argued months ago for the Brussels Report and in Modern Diplomacy.

In March this year, Gallup released a poll that showed that 45% of Americans see China as the greatest US enemy. The poll did not frame the question as Cold War but it can be argued that Joe Biden has some mandate derived from the opinion of American people. That is not the case for Europe at all, to the extent that most of us don’t see “China as an enemy” even as a relevant question.

The US’s China pursuit is already giving horrible for the US results in Europe, as French President Macron withdrew the French Ambassador to the US. The US made a deal already in June, as a part of the trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia, and stabbed France in the back months ago to Macron’s last-minute surprise last week. Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that it is Macron that is actually arrogant to expect that commitments and deals should mean something: “Back in February, Macron rejected the idea of a U.S.-E.U. common front against China. Now he complains when America pursues its own strategy against China. What’s French for chutzpah?” What Boot does get right is that indeed, there won’t be a joint US-EU front on China, and European citizens also don’t want this, as the recent poll has made clear.

The US saying Europe should follow the US into a Cold War with China over human rights is the same thing as China saying that Europe should start a Cold War with the US over the bad US human rights record. It’s not going to happen. You have to understand that this is how ridiculous the proposition sounds to us, Europeans. Leonard and Krastev urge the EU leadership to “make the case for more assertive policies” towards China around European and national interests rather than a Cold War logic, so that they can sell a strong, united, and compelling case for the future of the Atlantic alliance to European citizens.

I am not sure that I agree, as “more assertive policies” and “cold war” is probably the same thing in the mind of most Europeans and I don’t think that the nuance helps here or matters at all. Leaders like Biden argue anyway that the US is not really pursuing a Cold War. The authors caution EU leaders against adopting a “cold war” framing. You say “framing”, I say “spin”. Should we be in engaging in spins at all to sell unnecessary conflict to EU citizens only to please the US?

Unlike during the first cold war, [Europeans] do not see an immediate, existential threat”, Leonard clarified. European politicians can no longer rely on tensions with China to convince the electorate of the value of transatlantic relations. “Instead, they need to make the case from European interests, showing how a rebalanced alliance can empower and restore sovereignty to European citizens in a dangerous world”, Mark Leonard added. The study shows that there is a growing “disconnect” between the policy ambitions of those in Brussels and how Europeans think. EU citizens should stick to their sentiments and not be convinced to look for conflict where it doesn’t exist, or change what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears in favor of elusive things like the transatlantic partnership, which the US itself doesn’t believe in anyways. And the last thing that should be done is to scare Europeans by convincing them they live in a “dangerous world” and China is the biggest threat or concern.

What the study makes clear is that a Cold War framing against China is likely to repel more EU voters than it attracts, and if there is one thing that politicians know it is that you have to listen to the polls in what your people are telling you instead of engaging in spins. Those that don’t listen in advance get the signs eventually. At the end of the day it’s not important what Biden wants.

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Germany and its Neo-imperial quest

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In January 2021, eight months ago, when rumours about the possibility of appointment of Christian Schmidt as the High Representative in Bosnia occurred for the first time, I published the text under the title ‘Has Germany Lost Its NATO Compass?’. In this text I announced that Schmidt was appointed to help Dragan Čović, the leader of the Croatian HDZ party, to disrupt the constitutional structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina and create precoditions for secession of the Serb- and Croatian-held territories in Bosnia and the country’s final dissolution. I can hardly add anything new to it, except for the fact that Schmidt’s recent statements at the conference of Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft have fully confirmed my claims that his role in Bosnia is to act as Čović’s ally in the latter’s attempts to carve up the Bosnian Constitution.

Schmidt is a person with a heavy burden, the burden of a man who has continuously been promoting Croatian interests, for which the Croatian state decorated him with the medal of “Ante Starčević”, which, in his own words, he “proudly wears” and shares with several Croatian convicted war criminals who participated in the 1992-1995 aggression on Bosnia, whom Schmidt obviously perceives as his ideological brethren. The question is, then, why Germany appointed him as the High Representative in Bosnia? 

Germany’s policy towards Bosnia, exercised mostly through the institutions of the European Union, has continuously been based on the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. The phrases that we can occassionaly hear from the EU, on inviolability of state boundaries in the Balkans, is just a rhetoric adapted to the demands by the United States to keep these boundaries intact. So far, these boundaries have remained intact mainly due to the US efforts to preserve them. However, from the notorious Lisbon Conference in February 1992 to the present day, the European Union has always officially stood behind the idea that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be partitioned along ethnic lines. At the Lisbon Conference, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, the official representatives of the then European Community, which has in the meantime been rebranded as the European Union, drew the maps with lines of ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along which the ethnic cleansing was committed, with 100.000 killed and 1,000.000 expelled, so as to make its territory compatible with their maps. Neither Germany nor the European Union have ever distanced themselves from the idea they promoted and imposed at the Lisbon Conference as ‘the only possible solution’ for Bosnia, despite the grave consequences that followed. Nor has this idea ever stopped being a must within their foreign policy circles, as it has recently been demonstrated by the so-called Janša Non-Paper, launched a couple of months ago, which also advocates the final partition and dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such a plan is probably a product of the powerful right-wing circles in the European institutions, such as Schmidt’s CSU, rather than a homework of Janez Janša, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, whose party is a part of these circles, albeit a minor one. To be sure, Germany is not the original author of the idea of Bosnia’s partition, this author is Great Britain, which launched it directly through Lord Carrington at the Lisbon Conference. Yet, Germany has never shown a will to distance itself from this idea, nor has it done the European Union. Moreover, the appointment of Schmidt, as a member of those political circles which promote ethnic partition as the only solution for multiethnic countries, testifies to the fact that Germany has decided to fully apply this idea and act as its chief promoter.

In this process, the neighbouring countries, Serbia and Croatia, with their extreme nationalist policies, can only act as the EU’s proxies, in charge for the physical implemenation of Bosnia’s pre-meditated disappearance. All the crimes that Serbia and Croatia committed on the Bosnian soil – from the military aggression, over war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, up to the 30 year-long efforts to undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – have always had a direct approval and absolute support of the leading EU countries. During the war and in its aftermath, Great Britain and France were the leaders of the initiatives to impose ethnic partition on the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now Germany has taken up their role. In such a context, the increasing aggressiveness of Serbia and Croatia can only be interpreted as a consequence of the EU’s intention to finish with Bosnia for good, and Schmidt has arrived to Bosnia to facilitate that process. Therefore, it is high time for the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina to abandon any ilussions about the true intentions of the European Union and reject its Trojan Horse in the form of the current High Representative.  

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Should there be an age limit to be President?

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The presidential elections in Bulgaria are nearing in November 2021 and I would like to run for President of Bulgaria, but the issue is the age limit.

To run for President in Bulgaria a candidate needs to be at least 40 years old and I am 37. I am not the first to raise the question: should there be an age limit to run for President, and generally for office, and isn’t an age limit actually age discrimination?

Under the international human rights law standard, putting an age limit is allowed in the context of political participation under the right to vote and the right to run to be elected. Human Rights Committee General Comment No.25 interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that an age limit has to be based on objective and reasonable criteria, adding that it is reasonable to have a higher age requirement for certain offices. As it stands, the law says that having an age limit for president is not age discrimination, but is 40 actually a reasonable cut-off? National legislations can change. We need to lower the age limit and rethink what’s a reasonable age for President, and not do away with all age limits.

We have seen strong leaders emerge as heads of state and government who are below 40 years of age. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, became Prime Minister at 34. Sebastrian Kurz, the Prime Minister of Austria, was elected at 31. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, assumed her position at 37. So perhaps it is time to rethink age limits for the highest offices.

The US has plenty of examples where elected Senators and Congressmen actually beat the age limit and made it despite the convention. The age limit for Senator in the US is 30 years old. Rush Holt was elected to the US Senate at 29. In South Carolina, two State Senators were elected at 24 years old and they were seated anyways. The age limit for US president is 35 years old.

In Argentina, the age cut-off is 30. In India, it is 35. In Pakistan, it is 45 years old. In Turkey, it is 40 years old. Iceland says 35 years old. In France, it is 18.

Generally, democracies set lower age limits. More conservative countries set the age limit higher in line with stereotypes rather than any real world evidence that a 45 year-old or 55 year-old person would be more effective and better suited to the job. Liberal countries tend to set lower age limits.

40 years old to be a President of Bulgaria seems to be an arbitrary line drawn. And while it is legal to have some age limits, 40 years old seems to be last century. Changing the age limit for president of Bulgaria could be a task for the next Bulgarian Parliament for which Bulgarians will also vote on the same date as they vote for President.

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