The Connection between the Three Seas Initiative and the Middle Corridor: An Italian Perspective
It is not a mystery. The Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, intends not to renew the controversial memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative. After all, this deal has always been risky from a geopolitical point of view and it is good that the Prime Minister is about to take such a step. Indeed, we should not forget that China is listed among the major geopolitical threats to the West. On the other hand, Rome will face significant challenges. It is in fact possible that Italy will be hit by Chinese retaliation. Meloni is aware of this. Not surprisingly, in recent months she has significantly strengthened relations with the United States and India. It is for this reason that, looking ahead, the Prime Minister should consider joining the Three Seas Initiative.
This forum could protect Rome from potential retaliation from Beijing: in particular, this initiative could help Italy in terms of investments and infrastructure, also allowing it to further strengthen its ties with Washington. It is no secret that China has targeted some Italian ports. And it is urgent to counter this strategy. Not by chance, Giorgia Meloni’s government has already shown attention to the Three Seas Initiative. Last July, members of the Italian government attended an event that was organized in Rome by the embassies of Poland and Romania and that was specifically dedicated to this international forum.
In particular, joining the Three Seas Initiative could help Italy protect its interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Indeed, the current Italian government is focusing attention on this region in terms of trade, defense and energy. Last February, the Minister of Made in Italy, Adolfo Urso, went to Azerbaijan to promote an agreement between Ansaldo and Azerenerji in the energy sector. The month before, the country had been visited by Defense Minister, Guido Crosetto, in order to discuss military cooperation with Baku. Furthermore, in September, the Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani, went to Kazakhstan, defining the country as a “strategic partner” for Rome. Moreover, last May, Giorgia Meloni had a phone call with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev: on that occasion, the two leaders defined the relations between Rome and Astana as “excellent”. This means that the current Italian government has already understood the strategic importance of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Finally, it is worth noting that, under Giorgia Meloni, relations between Italy and Turkey have significantly improved.
In this sense, it is desirable that Rome focuses more and more on the so-called Middle Corridor: the entire West should do the same, especially because of the effects of the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is worth noting that this route starts from China and runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before reaching Europe. This route is gaining an increasingly central role to the detriment of the Eurasian Northern Corridor, which runs through Russia and has been hit by the effects of the Ukrainian crisis (especially in terms of sanctions). Last July, Kazakhstan announced plans to increase cargo transportation along the Middle Corridor to 500,000 containers per year by 2030. From this point of view, the Three Seas Initiative should work hard to try to reduce Chinese influence on the Middle Corridor.
This is certainly not an easy goal to achieve. China and Georgia recently agreed to develop and strengthen the Middle Corridor initiative. Moreover, in July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss efforts to align the Belt and Road Initiative with the Middle Corridor project. On the other hand, Central Asian and Caucasus countries do not fully trust Beijing due to the debt trap and due to the limited success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Three Seas Initiative should therefore bet on this distrust, to make the Middle Corridor closer to the West. A preponderant Chinese influence on the Middle Corridor could be risky for Rome’s interests in the Caucasus due to the aforementioned potential retaliation from Beijing. Italy could reduce these risks by joining the Three Seas Initiative.
There are other benefits that Rome could achieve if it joined this forum. It is worth remembering that Giorgia Meloni is the chairwoman of the ECR and that, in this role, she has forged strong ties with Law and Justice: the party of Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has always been one of the main promoters of the Three Seas Initiative. Rome therefore has the opportunity to strengthen relations with Warsaw and with the eastern flank of NATO. The Ukrainian crisis has made Eastern Europe increasingly central from a geopolitical point of view. Joining the Three Seas Initiative could further strengthen Rome’s international role. It is also worth noting that Poland has significant connections with the Middle Corridor. Last February, Poland and Azerbaijan exchanged views on the development of this route. The Middle Corridor could be connected to the Baltic–Adriatic Corridor: a route that connects Poland with the Emilia Romagna region. In this sense, a solid relationship between Rome and Warsaw could safeguard Italian interests in the Caucasus.
Another interesting aspect for Italy lies in the fact that its potential membership of the Three Seas Initiative could favor Rome’s projection towards the Balkans. Furthermore, such membership would make Italy closer and closer to the United States. This situation would help Rome in countering the Franco-German axis. This would be an advantage for Italy and for the transatlantic relations. First: France and Germany have often hindered Italy within the European Union from a political point of view. It follows that Rome can benefit from strengthening relations with Eastern Europe and the United States. Second: we must not forget that Emmanuel Macron’s France has become significantly closer to China and that Berlin also maintains strict economic relations with Beijing.
Moreover, we should note that Greece was admitted to the Three Seas Initiative in September. Italy’s potential membership could expand the influence of this forum to a significant part of NATO’s southern flank. The initiative could, in other words, play a role not only in the Adriatic Sea, but in the entire Mediterranean basin. It is well known that Chinese economic influence is growing in North Africa and Middle East. For this reason, the Three Seas Initiative should try to make this region closer to the Middle Corridor: it is not impossible. The relationship between Central Asia and the Gulf countries is becoming warmer: on July, Saudi Arabia hosted the first GCC-Central Asia Summit. It is therefore important that the Three Seas Initiative has a more solid Mediterranean dimension. Italy could be helpful to achieve this goal.
Furthermore, less close relations between Italy and China could indirectly weaken the controversial Sino-Vatican agreement on the appointment of bishops. This deal is strongly supported by the Society of Jesus and the Community of Sant’Egidio. Finally, it is worth mentioning that China is waging a propaganda campaign against Italy’s exit from the Belt and Road Initiative. Last September, Rome was characterized by a Chinese propaganda offensive through conferences attended by CCP members. It is therefore necessary for transatlantic relations to be stronger than ever to counter the autocratic threat from Beijing.
Photo source: Gonzalo Mendiola (pexels.com)