China’s belt and road initiative (BRI) suffered a setback after Italy formally declared it was about to exit the mega project.
As per the clause of the deal between the two countries, Italy was required to inform China of its decision three months before the actual exit. Hence, the European nation will part ways with China on the project officially from March 2024.
China’s ambitious BRI is an ultra big-ticket infrastructure project involving large parts of Asia and beyond, especially focussing on revival of the old Silk Route of international trade. The project has been on since 2013.
Though Italy had been an important partner of China on this project, prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, had long been critical of the project and had expressed her intention to withdraw from the deal, seen by many as an effort by China to buy political influence but having limited benefits for Italy.
Italy became the only G7 nation to join the initiative in 2019, irking its EU and US allies.
“It’s now time for a more effective relationship between Italy and China,” said the then prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, in March 2019. During a visit to Rome, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, was treated like royalty, and the two countries struck commercial deals in a variety of areas, including tourism, food and football.
More than 100 countries have signed agreements with China to cooperate on BRI.
Last July, Italy’s defence minister, Guido Crosetto, said joining China’s BRI had been a poor decision.
“The decision to join the [new] Silk Road was an improvised and atrocious act” that boosted China’s exports to Italy but did not have the same effect on Italian exports to China, he said.
“The issue today is how to walk back [from the BRI] without damaging relations [with Beijing]. Because it is true that China is a competitor, but it is also a partner.”
China spent $240bn (£195bn) bailing out countries struggling under their BRI debts between 2008 and 2021, data showed in March this year.
Crosetto also voiced concerns about Beijing’s “increasingly assertive attitudes”, its ambition to have the largest military presence in the world and its ambitions to expand, particularly in Africa. “They don’t hide their goals. They make them explicit,” he said.
After a White House meeting with the US president, Joe Biden, last summer, Meloni said her government had until December to make a decision on the BRI.
“We have every intention of maintaining excellent relations with China even if we are no longer part of the belt and road initiative,” a government source in Italy told Reuters. “Other G7 nations have closer relations with China than we do, despite the fact they were never in [the BRI].”
Italy will assume the presidency of the G7 in 2024.
Looking to maintain strategic ties, Italian foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, visited Beijing in September and Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, is due to visit China next year.
Meloni herself has said she wants to go to Beijing, but no date has been fixed.