In 2019 Italy joined the Belt and Road Initiative, but recent statements from top officials suggest that the agreement might not be renewed again.
The Belt and Road Initiative by China, aimed at reviving trade along the historic Silk Road, remains uncertain in Rome. Italy, the only G7 member in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is contemplating an exit without harming its relations with China.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani drew attention with his messages both before and during his visit to Beijing from September 3 to 5. Prior to the visit, Tajani expressed Italy’s disappointment at not receiving what it had “expected,” but when he was in Beijing emphasized “strong cooperation”. And his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi emphasized the need to maintain the “comprehensive strategic partnership” that has led to increased exports between the two countries.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni also met with her Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang, at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in New Delhi on 9–10 September. Meloni emphasized the need to deepen relations and mentioned plans for her upcoming visit to China. At that time, the popular Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported on the Meloni-Li meeting, suggesting that the Chinese Prime Minister invited Meloni to reconsider leaving the Belt and Road Initiative, but Meloni stated Italy wanted to leave.
We conducted an interview on the issue with Fabrizio Verde, the Director of l’AntiDiplomatico, Italian online newspaper.
Is Italy withdrawing from the Belt and Road Initiative? How did this matter come to the agenda of the Meloni government?
Italy is poised to withdraw from the Belt and Road Initiative. As anticipated, the Meloni government has adopted an overtly Atlanticist approach. We can see that Italy’s stance of aligning with the anti-Russian position of the Poles on the Ukrainian issue.
According to the agreement between Italy and China, “this Memorandum shall be valid for a period of five years and shall automatically renew for a further five years unless one party gives written notice to the other party at least three months before termination.” So, the Italian government needs to notify its withdrawal from the agreement after going through the necessary parliamentary process by December 2023.
Pressure from the US?
Meloni claimed that the decision to withdraw from the Initiative is driven by “economic convenience” and rejected any intervention or pressure from the US. Given that China is the world’s largest exporter and represents over 20% of the global economy on its own, this claim of “economic convenience” must be thoroughly examined. China also holds a significant position in Italy’s imports, reaching a record $3.3 billion within a year. That means tripling in a year.
In reality, when Meloni hurriedly denies any US intervention, she indirectly acknowledges that the order to withdraw from the memorandum came from Washington. When the agreement was signed by the first Conte government, the US did not conceal its discomfort with Italy, a G7 member, deviating from the confrontational approach toward China adopted by the US and its vassal states.
Additionally, the Meloni government signed an agreement for a major infrastructure project of the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor as an alternative to the Silk Road, together with the US, Saudi Arabia, the EU, India, Germany, France and the United Arab Emirates.
The day after her election victory, Meloni stated the following regarding her government’s foreign policy: “Italy under our rule will never be the weak link and unreliable country of the West. Italy will restore its credibility and defend its interests.” Unfulfilled promises. Instead, we have an Italy trapped in a European cage, submissive to the wishes of the United States and NATO. In this way, Meloni recognizes that Italy is a country with limited sovereignty.
How has the Belt and Road Initiative benefited and could benefit Italy?
Italy’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative carries significant implications and goals. To understand that we need to consider aspects of economy, infrastructure, trade, geopolitics and diplomacy. I would like to briefly explain them in order.
Economy, infrastructure, trade networks, strategic positioning
Italy’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative mainly aims to strengthen its economy. Access to new markets, increasing exports of Italian goods and services, and the potential to attract substantial Chinese investments: such endeavors hold the potential to stimulate growth and increase employment.
Italy aims to leverage the Belt and Road Initiative to enhance its infrastructure. Investments in transportation, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure can significantly improve domestic connections and bolster trade links with other countries in the Initiative. This not only modernizes Italy’s infrastructure but also positions it as a vital transit point for goods travelling along the routes of the Initiative.
Italy views the Belt and Road Initiative as a gateway to expanding its trade networks. The Initiative offers opportunities to enhance trade with Asian and African countries located along the corridors of the Initiative. Diversifying export markets and reducing dependence on traditional trading partners is a strategic move that can increase Italy’s economic resilience.
Participation in the Belt and Road Initiative strengthens Italy’s strategic position, particularly in the European and Mediterranean regions. Actively engaging in the Initiative’s projects, Italy could position itself as a crucial entry point for Chinese products into Europe. Moreover, it could become a central hub for trade and investment activities in the Mediterranean region.
Italy playing with fire
In conclusion, Italy’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative is a multifaceted endeavor: economic growth, infrastructure development, trade diversification, geopolitical positioning and diplomatic cooperation. While it is imperative to scrutinize the details of each project and evaluate their long-term impacts, completely withdrawing from the Initiative, especially during a time when China is poised to become the world’s leading economy, could mean forfeiting these potential advantages. Therefore, it would be prudent for Italy to carefully assess the benefits and drawbacks and to find a way compatible with its national interests and strategic objectives.
As economist Pasquale Cicalese pointed out in l’AntiDiplomatico, Italy’s exports to China increased by 15% in August. The cancellation of the Silk Road agreements has not yet occurred. So, Rome should think carefully and avoid playing with fire.