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Silk Road Notes by Clingendael Institute

After Greece and Portugal, Italy could be the next Southern European country to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China on the Belt and Road Initiative. President Xi Jinping will visit Italy on March 22-24, and according to Reuters the two countries are negotiating the terms of a possible MoU [Italy mulls preliminary Belt and Road deal with China]. Although less sensitive than cooperation on advanced technology, such as 5G, AI or semiconductors, third country involvement in BRI is increasingly also an issue in US-China relations. In the case of Italy’s talks with China on signing an MoU, the US government warned Italy against doing so [China tells US to mind its own business after Italy is warned not to join Belt and Road Initiative].

According to Zhang Yesui, a spokesman for China’s National People’s Congress, a total of 157 countries and international organisations have already signed BRI agreements [China defends belt and road strategy against debt trap claims]. He did not specify how many of these are countries, but the internet portal for BRI of the Chinese government lists 129 countries that have signed some type of cooperation agreement which China on BRI. It is possible that this list includes not just countries which have signed a formal MoU, but also those which produced joint statements on BRI and/or cooperation agreements on specific projects that China regards as part of BRI. Still, many national governments seem to have endorsed China’s BRI. Two aspects matter here. First, what exactly did these governments sign? How often was this a standard text prepared by China, and in how many instances was it a document that combined views and expressions from both sides? And second, what did they get, or aimed to get, in return from China?

Although most memoranda of understanding probably are non-binding statements that mean little to China’s counterparts, they are highly valued by the Chinese government. Individually each MoU may be of relatively little consequence. But together these statements strengthen the legitimacy of the Belt and Road Initiative, and thereby they contribute to the legitimacy of China as a global leader in economic affairs.

Frans-Paul van der Putten

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