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Opinion
Ferdinando Giugliano

China Finds a G-7 Ally for Belt and Road

Italy’s trading relationship with China goes back to Marco Polo, but it’s ironic that the “Italy first” populists want to cosy up to Beijing.

Italy and China’s trading relationship goes back to 13th century Marco Polo.

Italy and China’s trading relationship goes back to 13th century Marco Polo.

Photographer: Print Collector/Hulton Archive

The trading relationship between Italy and China goes back a long time. In the 13th century, Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant and explorer, was the first European to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience in the Far East. For centuries, precious fabrics traveled on the Silk Road from China to the Italian cities of Venice and Lucca, where they were transformed into luxury garments.

So it’s not entirely shocking (at least from a historical perspective) that Italy might become the first major western economy to sign up to the Belt and Road initiative, the controversial Chinese infrastructure program aimed at improving the links between Asia, Europe and Africa. The project, which President Xi Jinping first launched in 2013, already includes a few European countries such as Portugal, Greece and Hungary. But it has attracted hostility in the EU and U.S., which naturally enough fear it is an instrument for expanding China’s influence. As such, the news that Italy is set to sign a memorandum of understanding with Beijing at the end of March signals a significant break with its traditional allies.