Italy reaches the end of a long and winding Road

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pulls the plug on China’s global infrastructure and transportation project 

Italy has officially told China that it will leave the Belt and Road Initiative or BRI. It will be the first country to do so since the project was launched a decade ago. Despite the decision, Rome still plans to maintain good relations with Beijing, government sources said earlier this week.

China launched the global infrastructure and transportation project in 2013, aiming to boost connectivity with nations in Eurasia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America. 

Critics argue that one key goal, though, was to expand the influence of the Chinese Communist Party through these new Silk Roads. 

Nearly 150 countries, or about 75% of the global population, have joined.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long been critical of the partnership, once calling the 2019 decision to join the BRI a “serious mistake.” 

After Meloni took office last year, she said the economic promise of the deal had never materialized. The agreement, which runs until March 2024, will not be renewed, sources in her coalition said.

Canceled projects

“We have every intention of maintaining excellent relations with China even if we are no longer part of the Belt and Road Initiative,” one official told the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.

Another source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the exit was orchestrated in such a way as to “keep channels of political dialogue open,” but would not elaborate.

“As the first country that has withdrawn from BRI, Italy is going to be viewed by China with a lot of skepticism and curiosity,” Yun Sun, the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, said.

Italy is the European Union’s third-largest economy. Photo: File

She pointed out that Italy, the European Union’s third-largest economy, could have canceled its BRI-related projects rather than backing out of the program wholesale. 

The full-fledged exit has “political optics,” Sun said, adding:

I wouldn’t say that their bilateral relationship is going to break up because of this decision. But it certainly doesn’t cast a positive light on their bilateral interactions in the foreseeable future.

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, which broke the news, reported that Rome’s intention to leave the BRI was communicated to Beijing earlier this week.

Some experts think the timing of the notification could have been intentional. China is hosting a summit with European Union officials on Thursday. The talks will span several intricate issues, including trade deficits and technology.

Booming trade

“Perhaps there was an agreement with the EU leaders that Italy would notify China before the EU meeting so that this [withdrawal] wouldn’t lead to any misunderstandings,” Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based columnist for SettimanaNews, an Italian news outlet, said.

When Italy became a BRI member four years ago, then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had high hopes for booming trade. 

But China has since raked in most of the profits.

Annual Chinese exports to Italy nearly doubled from US$34 billion in 2019 to $62 billion today. During that same period, Italian exports to China rose modestly from $14 billion to $17.7 billion.

The glitzy expo for the Belt and Road project. Photo: Social Media

Rome, which will host a meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, or G7, next year and serve as rotating president, is the only major Western power to have signed onto the pact. 

This came, despite concerns from the United States that Beijing might gain undue control over technology and infrastructure.

“Italy joining the BRI in 2019 sent the wrong message to other EU and NATO members,” Sisci told Voice of America. Meloni’s government, he said, is now signaling that “it is back in line with its partners and allies.”

Regarded as a standard-bearer for right-wing populism in Europe, Meloni has been eager to show the world that Italy stands with NATO. 

Diplomatic mission

In June, her Cabinet limited the power Chinese shareholder Sinochem had over the Italian tire company Pirelli. According to a government source, she promised US President Joe Biden earlier this year that Italy would back out of the BRI.

Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani flew to Beijing in September on a diplomatic mission, and President Sergio Mattarella is expected to visit China in 2024.

Meloni has said she also wants to visit Beijing.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

Gabriel Levin produced this article for Voice of America.

This article is republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.