One of the curiosities of the worldwide spread of the coronavirus is why countries like Italy and Iran have been so greatly affected. Helen Raleigh, writing on The Federalist website, offers some valuable insight on the topic.

The virus originated in China, which leads the world in coronavirus infections and deaths. And Raleigh contends that the reason Italy and Iran are numbers 2 and 3 on the list is because of their recent economic agreements with China.

This comes through China’s “One Belt and One Road” initiative, which Raleigh describes as a “foreign policy play disguised as infrastructure investment.” Typically, a participating country borrows money from China to pay for an infrastructure project. A Chinese company always gets the construction contract and sends supplies and Chinese workers to the other country.

Wikipedia reports that more than 100 countries around the world have signed up for One Belt projects. Raleigh is correct that this is a big win for China, which gets access to new markets for its goods, creates jobs for its workers and provides access to global natural resources.

But she believes that the country’s real objective is expansion of its “geopolitical influence” from Asia into Europe and Africa. It also is clearly intended as a challenge to America’s global geopolitical influence.

Italy, weakened by three recessions in 10 years, a 10 percent unemployment rate and two decades of stagnant economic growth, became the first major European economy to join the One Belt initiative in 2019, despite warnings from the European Union and the United States.

“Lombardy and Tuscany are the two regions that saw the most Chinese investment,” Raleigh wrote. “Nearly a year later, the first Wuhan coronavirus infection case in Italy was reported in the Lombardy region on Feb. 21. Today, Italy is experiencing the worst coronavirus outbreak outside China, and Lombardy is the hardest-hit region in the country.” The country is in lockdown till April 3, and the economy is expected to shrink by 7 percent in three months.

Iran’s economy has been even worse than Italy’s, with inflation at 40 percent and unemployment at 15 percent. China has bought oil to help the Iranians avoid U.S. sanctions and has sold weapons to the country.

Iran also joined One Belt in 2019 and today traces its coronavirus outbreak to a city where the Chinese are building a high-speed rail line and upgrading a nearby nuclear plant.

Raleigh is correct that there are risks to doing business with China, not even counting the coronavirus. Sri Lanka, for example, could not pay its debt to China after a gigantic port construction project and wound up leasing the Indian Ocean port to China for 99 years. That is some nifty debt-trap diplomacy.

But blaming Chinese economic agreements for coronavirus outbreaks seems too simple. If that’s all there is to it, there would be Italy-sized case numbers in One Belt countries all around the world. So far, thankfully, there are only a few.

Jack Ryan, Enterprise-Journal

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