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Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the European Parliament (via Wikimedia Commons)

Italy has agreed to return nearly 800 illegally-exported cultural artifacts to China. The announcement was coordinated with news that the country would join the controversial Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the most ambitious trade infrastructure projects in a century.

The 796 objects in question were already ordered for repatriation by a Milanese court in November. They were first intercepted by Italy’s Carabinieri Art Squad at a local market in 2007. Items in the bounty range in age from around 3,000 BCE to the early 20th century. The find includes significant artifacts like a Neolithic-era clay pot related to the ancient Majiayao culture, Song dynasty porcelain, and pottery from the Han, Tang, and Ming dynasties.

“We are proud to be able to return these pieces to our friends, as they are representative of the heritage and identity of the Chinese people,” Italian culture minister Alberto Bonisoli said in a statement to the South China Morning Post.

The announcement came during an official three-day state visit in Rome between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

But plans for repatriation may be overshadowed by the importance of a greater Chinese-Italian partnership at play. During the summit, both leaders signed 29 deals worth an estimated $2.8 billion. The majority of these contracts focused on opening China’s agricultural, finance, and energy sectors to Italian energy and engineering firms. In exchange, Italy has agreed to join the Chinese government’s BRI — an unprecedented decision in Europe.

The World Bank Group, which has already committed $80 billion to the project, expects the initiative to strengthen trade and investments between China and 65 other countries that account collectively for over 30 percent of global GDP, 62 percent of population, and 75 percent of known energy reserves. Nobody knows what the exact cost of the BRI will be, but estimates have ranged between $4 trillion and $8 trillion. With such an immense undertaking, critics worry that the BRI will strengthen China’s global sphere of influence to a severe degree that would cause partnering countries to become economically beholden on the East Asian country.

What’s controversial about Italy’s agreement is how the country violated European Union norms by failing to consult and coordinate its decision with the governing body. The move is not entirely surprising given that Italy is currently ruled by a eurosceptic coalition whose largest parties are the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the rightwing group, Lega.

“Europe is showing its divisions toward China, and this is not something that will strengthen our position even on trade,” said the former Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, who served from 2016 to 2018 with the country’s Democratic party, on CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe. Italy has become the first EU nation and Group of Seven member to join the Chinese initiative.

But Gentiloni also doubts that the BRI agreement will have a major effect on the Italian markets. “We will not change the mood of our economy with these agreements, and my guess is that perhaps we will not even change the balance of trade between Italy and China, which is unfortunately a balance of deficit on the Italian side.”

Despite the appeal of cultural diplomacy at work, Italy is now receiving international backlash from its partners in Washington and Europe that its agreement with China will imperil strategic economic interests in the region.

Editors note 3/36/19: This title has been altered from “Italy Returns 800 Artifacts to China Amidst a Controversial $2.8 Billion Partnership” to “Italy Returns 800 Artifacts to China Amidst a Controversial Trade Deal” for accuracy.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...