China ‘breaking EU’ as Beijing sinks claws into bloc founder Italy

China's Xi weaves Poland into 'new silk road' plan

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The EU this week rejected pleas from Montenegro to help finance a $1billion (£728bn; €838bn) Chinese loan for an unfinished motorway project. An EU accession candidate, Montenegro has been plunged into a debt crisis because of the infrastructure project. The country’s officials have urged the EU to help repay the loan, which amounts to one-quarter of its overall debt.

It has thrust the spotlight on China’s growing influence and presence in the Balkans and South Eastern Europe.

The EU’s refusal to help risks opening the door for China’s state-run lender, the Export-Import Bank of China, to control assets owned by Montenegro, according to Politico.

In the past decade, China has turned its attention away from domestic economic growth to political influence and expansion internationally.

Its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative – known as China’s new Silk Road – hopes to modernise ancient East to West overland trading routes, as well as open new maritime passages to Africa and beyond.

In 2019, Italy signed a mammoth €2.5bn (£2.2bn; $2.8bn) investment deal with China, becoming the first developed nation to join President Xi Jinping’s global programme.

The move sparked fears in Europe with Italy being one of the EU’s founding members, a part of NATO, and a G7 nation.

China’s new Silk Road was explored during DW’s documentary, ‘China’s gateway to Europe – the New Silk Road’, where Michele Geraci, who served as Undersecretary of State at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development in June 2018, spoke about his dealings with President Xi.

While the government he was part of under Giuseppe Conte lasted just 15 months, Mr Geraci claimed that the work he had done to bond Italy and China was still valid and ready to go.

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He said: “When I came in, I took on this project and actually delivered it.

“So I accelerated the process, made the final agreement with the Chinese counterpart, we implemented and we signed it.

“And I do think this is the best economic opportunity Italy has.

“To cooperate with China, doing business together.”

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The documentary noted: “Many saw the signing of this contract as a break with the old alliances.”

Mr Conte’s government’s logic was purely economic, justifying its actions by pointing to countries around the world also doing business with China, even if they had no official agreement.

Mr Geraci said: “There is absolutely no contradiction and no conflict with the European strategy.

“If someone worries about the fact that if China invests then you have to give them something back, China has invested in Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Spain, Malta, Istanbul and Greece – and the UK.

“All ports in Europe have Chinese ownership.”

It is true that in recent years China has gained ownership of several key ports in Europe.

The country became the majority shareholder in the Greek port of Piraeus in 2016, having bought part of it in 2008.

A gateway to Eastern, Central and later Northern Europe, the port of Piraeus will remain under Chinese control until 2051 when the lease expires.

It could, however, be extended.

This is a year after President Xi’s 2050 roadmap to transform China into a leading global power.

Of his plans, during a twice-a-decade party gathering in 2017, Xi said: “Chinese people will enjoy greater happiness and well-being, and the Chinese nation will stand taller and firmer in the world.”

He hailed the country’s Belt and Road initiative as a model that would help realise this plan.

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