Italy’s accord with China sparks new clash among leaders in Rome

Wang Yii shakes hands with Luigi Di Maio during the signing of the memorandum of understanding on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. (Bloomberg pic)

MILAN: Italy’s agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping to join the Belt and Road development project is triggering new tension between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and its rightist coalition partner the League.

Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League who has warned about potential security threats from China, didn’t attend the signing ceremony in Rome on Saturday.

At an event in northern Italy the same day, he cautioned about the lack of a free market in China.

“I’m happy that the Chinese president is here for a visit because the more the markets are opened for our companies, the better it is – on equal footing,” Salvini told a conference along Lake Como.

“Don’t tell me that China is a country where the free market prevails, where the state doesn’t interfere in the economy, in the legal system, in information.”

Economic Development Minister Luigi Di Maio of Five Star responded by saying of Salvini: “He has the right to speak. I have the duty to act as the minister of economic development, and the facts today are the signing of agreements worth 2.5 billion euros (US$2.8 billion).”

Di Maio, who is the nation’s other deputy premier, said the potential value of those business accords with the Chinese is as much as 20 billion euros, giving the economy a much-needed boost.

Group of Seven

Italy is the first Group of Seven nation to volunteer for a role in the massive international Belt and Road program, with a memorandum of understanding that the two sides formally approved at the Renaissance-era Villa Madama in Rome on Saturday.

The accord has sparked worries in the US and European Union over the Asian power’s push for economic domination.

The business deals involve firms including energy giant Eni, gas pipeline operator Snam SpA, engineering company Ansaldo Energia, and bank Intesa Sanpaolo.

They also include an agreement between the ports of Trieste and Genova and the China Communications Construction.

Clashes over China between the two leaders are not a novelty.

Earlier this month Salvini sought to limit the populist government’s new openness to China and urged safeguards to prevent “foreign powers” from shaping Italy’s economy and politics.

The latest verbal battle between Di Maio and Salvini took place just before the regional election in Basilicata on Sunday.

Salvini has campaigned heavily in the southern region, seeking to confirm the expansion of the party across Italy.

Nationally, Five Star fell to 21% support in an SWG survey last week, narrowly overtaken by the centre-left Democratic Party Party for the first time since 2017.

Asked whether the government alliance will last, Salvini said Saturday: “If it depends on me, this government will complete its term maintaining all of the commitments that were undertaken.”

The government was formed last year for a planned five-year duration.

Non-stop infighting has led to speculation it could collapse as early as this year.