Italy Mulls Quitting China’s ‘Belt and Road’ but Fears Offending Beijing

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Italy is considering whether to leave the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s multibillion-dollar global trade and infrastructure program, by the end of the year. The dilemma comes amid geopolitical pressures from Western allies and domestic disappointment that the program has not delivered the economic benefits that the country hoped for.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni spoke to reporters after meeting the Chinese delegation at last week’s G20 summit in New Delhi.

“There are European nations which in recent years haven’t been part of the Belt and Road but have been able to forge more favorable relations [with China] than we have sometimes managed,” Meloni said. “The issue is how to guarantee a partnership that is beneficial for both sides, leaving aside the decision that we will take on the BRI.”

BRI benefits?

Italy signed on to China’s BRI in 2019, the only member of the Group of 7 most advanced economies — including Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — to do so. But Italy has not received the expected economic benefits, Filippo Boni, a lecturer in politics and international studies at the Open University in England, told VOA.

“From the Italian side, the idea was to both try and boost its exports but also to make a political move towards Brussels, as a signal that Italy was able to sign successful deals with third countries independently from the European Union,” Boni said, adding that Meloni is seeking to make a clear break with previous [Italian] governments by forging new relationships with China and the EU.

“There is a growing realization that the memorandum of understanding that was signed with China in March 2019 did not really bring the benefits that were expected,” he said. “Trade balance is still heavily tilted in China’s favor, and Italian exports to China did not pick up, did not see the increase that those who wanted [the BRI] were envisaging and hoping for.”

Geopolitics

There are also geopolitical reasons for Italy rethinking its membership in China’s BRI, said Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

“There’s come to be a certain diplomatic stigma attached to it, partly because the whole of the West is rethinking its relationship with China,” Scazzieri told VOA. “And Italy being the only G7 country having signed up to the Belt and Road makes it, on the other hand, look like it’s trying to get closer to Beijing.”

Italy’s Western allies are reducing their reliance on some Chinese imports and restricting the sale of technologies such as advanced semiconductors to Beijing.

In recent years, Italy’s government has blocked the sale of some of its biggest companies to Chinese firms, such as the tire maker Pirelli, under its so-called Golden Power rules.

“It’s really a clear signal the government in Rome is sending to its partners in the European Union, and Washington most importantly, about Italy’s position on the international chess board,” Boni said.

China’s response

Questioned about Italy’s potential departure from the BRI this week, China’s Foreign Ministry insisted the program brings benefits to its members.

“The Belt and Road Initiative has attracted more than 150 countries and a wide range of partners in various fields over the past 10 years and has brought tangible benefits to the people of all countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters. “It is in the interests of all participating countries to further tap the potential of cooperation.”

Italy is choosing its language carefully and said it wants to boost trade with Beijing outside the BRI, Scazzieri said.

“The fear of Beijing reacting in a negative way has been precisely why Meloni has been quite careful about how to go about extracting Italy from BRI,” he said.

Italy already has a strategic partnership with China, an agreement Beijing has signed with many countries aimed at fostering economic and cultural ties. It’s likely Rome will seek to amend that document in the hope of replacing its BRI membership with a looser relationship.

“Given the centrality that ‘strategic partnerships’ have in China’s foreign policy — as of the end of last year, there were 110 strategic partnerships that China signed with countries globally — I think it might be a good way out of the Belt and Road Initiative for both countries to say, ‘We’re still engaged in bilateral cooperation,’ ” Boni said.

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