Italy’s conservative PM pulls plug on China’s BRI ahead of EU summit

by WorldTribune Staff, December 7, 2023

Pointing to a major trade imbalance, Italy indicated on Dec. 6 that it would withdraw from communist China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The move came one day ahead of the China-EU summit in Beijing.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a conservative, had said Italy, the only member of the Group of Seven to join the BRI, would abandon its membership.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni

Meloni said that Italy’s decision to join the BRI in 2019 was a “serious mistake.”

Since joining the BRI, Italy’s exports to China increased just 19% to $17.3 billion from 2019 to 2022. But its imports from China increased nearly 71% to $60.5 billion in the same period, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Analysts said Italy’s withdrawal from BRI was particularly awkward for Xi Jinping as it is the Chinese leader’s top infrastructure initiative.

“For China, it’s certainly a snub,” said Marc Julienne, head of China research at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, pointing to the fact that China has just celebrated the 10th anniversary of the BRI.

Julienne said that Rome had taken stock and realized that it had gained “no benefits” from BRI while the relationship had become “costly for its image.”

BRI partners are under obligation to give three months’ notice ahead of an automatic renewal of their membership for five years. Italy’s was due in March 2024.

“This is the latest setback for Beijing in its relations with Europe,” said Berlin-based Noah Barkin, an analyst on Europe-China relations who works for research company Rhodium Group and U.S. think tank German Marshall Fund.

Barkin added: “I expect Beijing to bide its time in the hope that a return of Donald Trump to the White House triggers a transatlantic split that makes Europe more risk-averse vis-a-vis China.”

The major problem remains the “huge disappointment within the Italian business community” over Chinese projects not being delivered, said Philippe Le Corre, senior fellow at the Center for China Analysis under the Asia Society Policy Institute in the U.S.

“Italy was once briefly an outlier, but it is no longer the case,” Le Corre said. Rome is now “in line” with Brussels’ position, which is to label China “a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival.”

For now, Beijing and its mouthpieces Global Times and Xinhua News Agency have yet to make any official comment. But as recently as September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had hailed the fruitful relationship with Italy under the BRI, following a meeting with Meloni.

Asia Nikkei noted in a Dec. 7 analysis that “Europe’s distancing from China is interpreted in some quarters as the result of Washington’s influence, but others say the allies are only trying to level the playing field.”

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