Italy quits Belt and Road plan as Europe rethinks China relations

ROME, ITALY - APRIL 05: Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (not in picture) hold a joint press conference after their meeting at Palazzo Chigi, on April 5, 2023 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during a press conference in Rome earlier this year.Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

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Italy, the only G7 country to join China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, will leave the global infrastructure program when its contract expires next year – the latest sign of hardening European attitudes to Beijing and its global ambitions.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Thursday confirmed the widely expected move, a campaign pledge during her run for office last year amid complaints the deal signed with China by a previous government in 2019 had brought few benefits to Italy’s economy.

Meloni stressed however that Rome could maintain good ties with Beijing outside the program, which has expanded China’s global influence while raising concerns it has saddled some countries with unmanageable debt.

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“I think that we should … improve our cooperation with China on trade, the economy,” Meloni told reporters, according to Reuters, in her first public comments on the issue after reports Italy had told China of its decision not to extend the pact after it expires in March 2024.

“The tool of the (BRI) … has not produced the results that were expected,” she added.

Italy’s move comes as the European Union has embarked on a campaign to “de-risk” its supply chains from China’s and secure sensitive technologies after the bloc deemed Beijing a “systemic rival” in 2019.

Those frictions were on show Thursday during a summit between EU heads and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing, where the two sides grappled with points of contention from trade to Russia’s war in Ukraine – with little concrete progress made.

China’s Foreign Ministry took a measured tone when asked about the Italian withdrawal during a regular press briefing Thursday, pointing to the “enormous appeal and global influence of Belt and Road cooperation.”

“China firmly opposes attempts to smear and sabotage Belt and Road cooperation or stoke bloc confrontation and division,” spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, without referring directly to Italy.

‘Wicked’ decision

China has inked agreements with what it says are more than 140 countries for partnership on the program, which has funneled hundreds of billions of dollars into roads, ports, airports and bridges, largely across the Global South over the past decade.

Italy’s decision to join the scheme in 2019 was widely seen at the time as a diplomatic win for Beijing – and drew criticism from Washington and Brussels.

Charles Michel, President of the European Council, meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, on Dec 1, 2022. (EU handout via EYEPRESS)

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In an interview with newspaper Corriere della Sera this summer, Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto branded the 2019 decision as “wicked,” citing growing trade imbalances between the two countries.

China imported $26.9 billion in Italian goods last year, compared with $21.4 billion in 2019. By contrast, Chinese exports to Italy rose to $50.5 billion from $33.5 billion over the same period, according to China’s customs data.

Rome joined the scheme under former China-friendly Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who condemned the withdrawal in an interview posted to his Facebook page, saying it was made for “ideological reasons” and risked “scuppering” potential expansion of Italian exports.

Chinese Ambassador to Italy Jia Guide earlier this year in an interview with Italian news outlet Fanpage suggested a “reckless” decision to withdraw from the pact would have a “negative” impact on cooperation.

Italian leaders have appeared keen to navigate the withdrawal carefully, with Meloni repeatedly suggesting it was possible to have good relations with China outside the Belt and Road plan. She has also previously denied speculation that the United States pressured her to quit the scheme.

EU meeting in Beijing

The news of Rome’s withdrawal came as the delegation of top European Union officials arrived in Beijing for the first in-person EU-China summit in four years.

The meeting was seen by Chinese leaders as a key opportunity to smooth contentious relations with Europe, which Beijing continues to see as a key potential counterweight in its competition with the United States.

“We should not view each other as rivals just because our systems are different, reduce cooperation because competition exists, or engage in confrontation because there are disagreements,” Xi told the visiting leaders, according to China’s official readout.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel pressed Xi and Chinese Premier Li Qiang on the gaping trade deficit between their economies and “unfair competition,” while Li urged the EU to be “prudent” in its use of “restrictive” economic policies.

Though the summit appeared to do little to resolve key issues, Von der Leyen said it saw both sides agree “that it is in our joint interest to have balanced trade relations.”

The EU side would be looking for “concrete progress following these discussions,” the bloc said in a statement after the meeting.

CNN’s Barbie Latza Nadeau in Rome contributed to this report.

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