- The WSJ reports that Italy is trying to negotiate a smooth end to its participation in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which hasn't proven to be as prosperous as Italy had hoped it would be. See article below.
- Italy was the first major Western country to join the BRI, so its departure could be seen as a blemish on BRI's record. Because of that, Italy is seeking to downplay the significance of its exit, and China is insisting the partnership was "fruitful."
- Pres. Putin met Turkey's Pres. Erdogan yesterday, but maintained his refusal to renew the Ukrainian grain deal.
- According to U.S. officials, North Korea's Kim Jong Un plans to visit Russia (perhaps Vladivostok) this month to meet Pres. Putin for talks about sending Russia North Korean weapons for use in Ukraine.
- Some analysts fear the other end of this deal could see Russia supplying North Korea with weapons or nuclear know-how in the future; others say this would just be a transactional and opportunistic agreement that's unlikely to lead to a worrisome long-term alliance between Russia and North Korea.
- Ihor Komomoisky - one of Ukraine's richest men and most powerful oligarchs - was arrested over the weekend and ordered to be detained for two months while he's investigated for fraud and money laundering charges.
- Analysts see his arrest as a sign that Ukraine is serious about fighting corruption - even if it means challenging powerful figures like Komomoisky.
- The public just learned that Johan Floderus - a Swedish diplomat who was a literal poster boy for working for the EU (his image and story were featured in EU recruiting campaigns) - has been imprisoned in Iran on questionable charges of espionage since April 17, 2022 - 506 days ago.
- Sweden and the EU were previously aware of his detention and have been working to secure his release, but Iran seems to be holding him as a bargaining chip to secure the release of Iranians jailed in the West.
- It's probably not a coincidence that the news about Floderus's detention emerged at the same time as a UN report showing that Iran has slowed its high-grade nuclear enrichment activity. Iran is likely seeking to finalize the hostage swap / frozen funds release agreement it tentatively reached with the U.S. last month.
- France confirmed it's in discussions with officials in the regular Nigerien army - not coup leaders - about the future of French troops in the country.
- France currently has about 1,500 troops in Niger; thus far they've defied the junta's order to leave.
- Gen. Brice Nguema - who led the coup in Gabon - was sworn in as the country's president. He promised "free, transparent" elections...but didn't say when. This has been a tactic of West African coup leaders: promise eventual elections, but put them off indefinitely.
- Critics are starting to murmur that Gen. Nguema's rule will only be a continuation of the Bongo dynasty he deposed: Nguema was close with the Bongos and even thought to be Ali Bongo's cousin. Many Gabonese were frustrated with Bongo rule and want greater change.
Rome’s disappointment with infrastructure accord comes as Western skepticism grows about China’s global economic ambitions
Italy is preparing to cancel its controversial membership in China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, engaging in an elaborate diplomatic dance to avoid angering Beijing and triggering retaliation against Italian businesses.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani held talks in Beijing on Sunday and Monday to facilitate as smooth an exit as possible from the initiative while laying the groundwork for alternative economic deals with China.
“We didn’t achieve great results with the Belt and Road, but that doesn’t matter,” Tajani told reporters in Beijing. “We are determined to move ahead with plans to strengthen our commercial ties.”
The Italian government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long signaled its discomfort with the Belt and Road memorandum that a previous Rome government signed with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019.
The memorandum marked the first time that a Group of Seven industrialized economy signed on to Xi’s global infrastructure project, and it was seen as a propaganda coup for Xi at a time when Belt and Road was facing criticism within China and in some participating countries.
Rome’s decision to participate raised eyebrows in Washington and in European Union capitals. Meloni, then in opposition, strongly criticized the decision. The memorandum with China has had few practical consequences and hasn’t led to any major Chinese investments in Italy. Nor has it helped Italian business boost exports to China, an area where Italy lags behind other European economies, such as Germany and France.
Many Western countries view the initiative as a vehicle for boosting China’s global economic and diplomatic clout. The U.S. and EU are trying to reduce economic dependencies on China in the context of growing geopolitical tensions, heightened by Xi’s close alignment with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the latter’s invasion of Ukraine.
As the U.S. has stepped up efforts to curb Beijing’s global influence, it has put gentle pressure on Italy to pull out of Belt and Road, including when Meloni visited the White House in July. At the time, Meloni told President Biden she was still assessing her options.
Italy says it hasn’t yet made a formal decision on whether to cancel its Belt and Road membership. But Rome officials have made little secret of their desire to opt out. The memorandum will automatically renew itself in 2024 unless Italy formally withdraws by late this year.
Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto recently called the original decision to sign up an “improvised and atrocious” move. The question now, he told newspaper Corriere della Sera, was “how to go back on our steps without harming the relationship.”
Italy says it wants to boost business ties with China in other ways, including by shifting the focus of cooperation toward a different existing bilateral accord, called the Strategic Partnership agreement.
“The Strategic Partnership will guide our relationship. It represents an opportunity for our businesses in many sectors, and it will strengthen our exports,” Tajani said after meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Monday. “We are betting on economic growth.”
Meloni has been worried that Beijing could punish Italy for announcing a withdrawal by curbing Italian exports to China, officials in Rome said.
She is expected to travel to China this fall and wants to resolve the issue by then, the officials said. To secure broad political support for withdrawal, Meloni wants Parliament to vote on it before her trip, these people said.
However, Italian officials are now becoming more confident that they can navigate their way out of the agreement without a backlash from Beijing.
China has said publicly that it wants Italy to remain a Belt and Road member, but there are also indications that Beijing has accepted Rome’s cancellation as inevitable. A recent article in the Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said Italy’s departure from the infrastructure initiative “should not be fundamentally detrimental” to bilateral relations.
“We need to use tact, elegance, diplomatic politeness so that we don’t damage the good relationship we have with China,” said a former top Italian official. “We want the same kind of relationship that France or Germany have,” he said, pointing out that Paris and Berlin have more lucrative economic relations with China despite never signing on to Belt and Road.
Since Italy signed on to the infrastructure project in 2019, its trade deficit with China has further widened. Meanwhile, attitudes in Italy and other parts of Europe have become more critical of China’s ambitions to buy local infrastructure or companies that possess technological know-how. Successive Italian governments have vetoed Chinese investments in strategically sensitive companies.
Italian officials have carefully avoided making public statements that could embarrass China. The Chinese “want conversations on this topic to happen privately. They are terrified by the prospect that we will make them lose face,” said another Italian official. “These are conversations that have to happen behind closed doors.”