The Malta Independent 23 August 2019, Friday

Italy slammed for thinking about China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but Malta has already signed on

Thursday, 14 March 2019, 09:32 Last update: about 6 months ago

While Italy is being slammed left, right and centre by the rest of the EU for even considering China’s Belt and Road investment scheme, the fact of the matter is that Malta had already signed on to the controversial initiative last year.

And while reports yesterday suggested that Malta was now considering signing on to the infrastructure investment initiative, the fact of the matter is that Malta had already made official moves to join the initiative last year.

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Italy, which is falsely being named as the first EU state to sign on to the Chinese initiative, has been warned by the White House that its intention to potentially join with Beijing in the scheme could hurt its international reputation.

In an interview from Brussels yesterday, Maltese Finance Minister Edward Scicluna backed the initiative, saying that “certain prejudices” should not come in the way of good business.

“One has to be wary of any country, especially with political ambitions or any sort of ambitions, but that’s life,” Scicluna told CNBC in Brussels.

“You have to be careful, but it doesn’t mean you say no to any business, because of certain prejudices, or this, or that, or because someone is pressuring you. For a country to survive and to be competitive, especially a small country, we need to have diversification,” Scicluna said.

And while it is being broadly reported that Malta is now considering joining the Chinese scheme after Italy, things are actually the other way around.

Back in November, Malta and China had signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the One Belt One Road initiative. 

At the time, it was said that the agreement would “provide the basis for projects, investment, and cooperation in the trade, financial services and tourism sectors to be carried out between the two countries.

“It signals to Chinese companies that, for the Chinese government, Malta is a good country to invest in with respect to European Union regulations.”

It was reported at the time that Malta was among the first European countries with which China has signed such an agreement.

The agreement was signed by Foreign Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela in the presence of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and He Lifeng, the chairman of the Commission for National Development and Reforms.

In September, Abela co-chaired the Malta-China Steering Committee with the participation of experts from Malta from the areas of energy, infrastructure, construction, financial services, maritime cooperation, aviation, tourism, aquaculture, education, cultural cooperation, broadcasting and film co-production.  

 “This is indeed a historic day,” Abela said at the time, “as we are launching, through this meeting, a new chapter in our relations, which should consolidate our relationship through renewed cooperation in a number of key areas for the mutual benefit of our two peoples.”

The Belt and Road scheme is meant to create a vast global network of land, sea and digital connections linking China with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Critics say the unprecedented infrastructure plan will favour Chinese firms, boost Beijing’s international influence and force developing nations to take on high debt burdens.

In addition to Malta and Italy, Greece and Portugal, have also been supportive of Beijing’s efforts.

But there’s much less support for Beijing’s global investment push in the U.S. The White House has previously said Italy’s potential involvement in the BRI could hurt its international reputation, according to the Financial Times.

“I have heard the alarm being raised from the United States,” Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio said Sunday. “Let it be clear that, if we are looking at the Silk Road towards China for our exports, it is not to strike a political deal with China, but only to help our companies.”

Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had a cautious approach about Italy reaching an agreement over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, insisting it is necessary to protect the national interest and national security if Italy is to take any steps in that direction.

Salvini said it is crucial to be very careful before putting vital infrastructure for Italy, particularly in the areas of data, networks, ports and airports, at the disposal of foreign investors.

Both the US and the EU have voiced concern about Italy joining the BRI, but no one has batted an eyelid about Malta.

On Tuesday Economy Minister Giovanni Tria put the controversy down about this issue was ‘a storm in a teacup’.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said last week a Memorandum of Understanding will be signed during a visit to Italy by Chinese President Xi Jinping between 21 and 23, an MoU that Malta had signed months back.

That announcement triggered concerns from the US, which has already spoken to the Rome government about security issues involving Huawei Technologies.

The BRI aims to revive and extend those routes via networks of upgraded or new railways, ports, pipelines, power grids and roads. President Xi Jinping champions his pet project as a means to spur development, goodwill and economic integration. Critics, however, are wary of an increasingly assertive superpower’s push to spread its influence.  And somewhere in the middle is Malta.

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