Over seven centuries ago, the young Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo embarked on a trailblazing journey along the ancient Silk Road that led him through Central Asia to China.
The Oriental empire’s abundant wealth recorded in his widely-circulated and eye-opening chronicles of his adventures had inspired Europeans of later generations to explore the riches of the East and ushered in the Age of Discovery. Today, as China is seeking to reignite the vitality of the ancient trade routes through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with partners worldwide, Italy has decided to follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy, the two countries on Saturday inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the BRI cooperation. Earlier, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he is going to attend the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation slated for next month in Beijing.
Rome’s official endorsement of the BRI has made it the first member of the Group of Seven, a bloc of wealthy Western powers, to join the China-proposed initiative, which seeks to connect the landmass of Asia, Europe and Africa through roads, railways and sea ports for the faster and easier flow of people, goods and capital in a bid to share the benefits of common development on a broader global scale.
Italy’s joining the initiative is a natural progression of its increasingly stronger partnership with China. The country is also a natural partner for China in BRI cooperation. In his signed article titled “East Meets West — A New Chapter of Sino-Italian Friendship” published Wednesday in the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Xi wrote that the two sides “may harness our historical and cultural bonds forged through the ancient Silk Road as well as our geographical locations to align connectivity cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative with Italy’s plan to develop its northern ports and the InvestItalia program.”
With key port cities like Venice, Genoa, Trieste and Palermo that look out at the blue waves of the Mediterranean, Italy enjoys a unique geographical edge as a key southern European gateway that can link the East and the West. If these ports can reach their full handling capacity, Italy would have the chance to build for itself a competitive global trade hub that can be on par with Germany’s Hamburg or the Netherlands’ Rotterdam. The BRI can serve as a major vehicle for Rome to unlock its ports’ potential for development in terms of expertise and funds. The BRI also offers Italian businesses broader access to Chinese markets. Last year, bilateral trade exceeded 50 billion U.S. dollars. The BRI partnership can help bring more Italian food, furniture and fashion designs to Chinese customers, and inject new impetus into its trade ties with other BRI countries.
More importantly, the substantial progress the BRI has achieved over the past years since its birth is yet another key factor that can explain Rome’s decision to join the initiative. In the words of Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the BRI is an “economic pie” that benefits the local people rather than a “debt trap.” So far, more than 150 countries and international organizations have signed BRI deals with China, including some European countries like Greece and Hungary. Prior to Rome’s signing of the MoU, some major Western powers on both sides of the Atlantic rushed to raise a red flag on the BRI’s alleged national security and financial risks, distort the initiative as China’s self-serving geo-political tool, and accuse Beijing of trying to expand its spheres of influence into the heartland of the European continent. For them, the Cold War seems to be still raging on.
China’s key motivation to roll out the initiative is not to scramble for control of what British political geographer Halford John Mackinder called the “World Island” which comprises Europe, Asia and Africa, but to promote shared growth and self-development. That’s because Beijing understands that in this age of expanding global interdependence, one can only gain when others enjoy stability and prosperity.
Therefore, all nations need to come together for common development. Protectionism and isolationism are not a way out. The BRI may be young and is certainly not perfect, yet it deserves patience and tolerance to be taken as a brand new option that could help shrink the global development deficit and bring about a more sustainable and inclusive type of globalization.
Italy, a major global economic power, has its own rights and, of course, the ability to identify where its national interests lie. The BRI skeptics need to discard their obsolete zero-sum mentality, and move beyond ideological entrenchment. Before 17-year-old Marco Polo embarked on the ancient Silk Road, he could never imagine his journey would ignite a spark that has energized hundreds of years of East-West exchanges. Now a new spark has been lit. It is time for modern-day Marco Polos and their Chinese partners to write new chapters in the story of the Silk Road.