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The Dark Shadow of Chinese Globalization Falls Over Italy

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The Dark Shadow of Chinese Globalization Falls Over Italy

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The Dark Shadow of Chinese Globalization Falls Over Italy

By Christopher R. O’Dea

Police officers in front of a cargo container ship at a port in Qingdao, China, in 2018. (Stringer/Reuters)

China’s ambition is nothing less than world domination through control of maritime trade.

By quietly acquiring a global network of commercial ports from countries and investors unable or unwilling to maintain their critical economic infrastructure, China has reverse-engineered the logic of conquest: Chinese state-owned companies now control a base network of the sort that previous global hegemons obtained through military victory. Expect China to use the coronavirus crisis to accelerate its efforts to use that economic leverage to pull host countries deeper into Beijing’s political orbit.

Such plans illustrate the true nature of Chinese investment. Provision of seemingly humanitarian aid to Italy and other Mediterranean nations is actually a practical move by China to protect some of its largest and most strategically valuable overseas investments and carry out its drive for geopolitical power. In fact, China is taking advantage of the virus crisis to accelerate its use of the economic leverage derived from the global network of ports and logistics infrastructure now under the long-term control of Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Chinese SOEs have acted in plain sight to assemble this network of commercial maritime power, which includes ports, ships, and landside logistics facilities. Carefully targeting economically weak nations, the Chinese companies bought contracts that grant them the rights to rebuild and manage ports, container-handling facilities, roads, and railways for decades to come. The sellers have been Western governments, pension funds, and port authorities that were no longer willing or able to afford the outlays required to maintain their own critical economic infrastructure.

Those terms will be presented after the crisis abates, while the world is distracted by recovery and mourning. Expect China to expand its control over critical economic infrastructure in countries such as Italy. The crisis may also serve as a pretext for gaining control over Italy’s virus-impaired national finances, and perhaps for extending Chinese influence to the financing and development of health-care infrastructure with a heavy dose of Chinese surveillance technologies. The EU opened the door to Chinese influence by unwisely refusing Italy’s early pleas for financial and medical help; Germany has since indicated willingness to consider financial aid for Italy, but news reports suggest that Germany favors limited methods such as a line of credit.

For a glimpse into the future, look to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that Italy signed in March 2019 to formalize its commitment to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. A government is in large measure a series of commitments by leaders to deliver a range of essential infrastructure services in exchange for citizens’ giving them power over budgets, security, trade, and public health. The Sino–Italian MOU is a blueprint for taking control of a country by gaining influence over the entire set of essential services that a government provides. The MOU includes terms calling on Italy to accept financing from the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which China set up a few years ago, to establish a strategic partnership between the Bank of China and one of Italy’s main investment banks in Turin, and for the two nations’ ministries of finance to collaborate on “financial and structural reforms.”

The paper also recognizes the potential for Italy’s debt problems to worsen. Italy’s vulnerability to Chinese power raises concerns about the security of U.S. and NATO bases in Naples. During an interview in Athens last October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated that those facilities were secure. But the situation bears careful monitoring. The EU is a major target for China’s global ambitions. The EU is home to extensive scientific and biotech expertise, but the main rationale for dominating the EU is that the Mediterranean is the source of the values underlying Western civilization, such as religious liberty, representative government, and respect for individuals. China want to replace those values. The EU sits at the far peninsula of Eurasia, which some Chinese military theorists see as a “world island” that must be captured in order to mount the final campaign against the United States and the Westphalian order.

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