Italy’s decision to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2019 was seen as a mistake by Defense Minister Guido Crosetto. Speaking to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Crosetto stated that the decision was “improvised and atrocious.” The BRI is a global infrastructure development strategy launched by China in 2013, aiming to enhance economic connectivity and cooperation with countries along the ancient Silk Road.
When Italy joined the initiative, it became the first Western nation to do so. The agreement between China and Italy aimed to lower trade barriers and promote investment in Italian ports and rail infrastructure. However, Crosetto pointed out that while Chinese imports to Italy have significantly increased since the agreement went into effect, Italian exports to China have only seen a marginal increase.
Crosetto emphasized the need to withdraw from the BRI without damaging the relationship with Beijing. He acknowledged that China is both a competitor and a partner for Italy. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has also expressed her intention to hold talks with Beijing on a potential withdrawal from the BRI. Following her meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington, Meloni told Fox News that a decision would be reached before the end of the year.
The BRI agreement was signed in 2019 by then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Chinese President Xi Jinping. At the time, Conte led a right-wing government with Matteo Salvini serving as vice premier. However, Meloni, who succeeded Conte, has distanced herself from the policies of her predecessors. She has adopted a more pro-Western stance, cultivating warm relations with Washington and Brussels. For instance, Meloni pledged unlimited military aid to Ukraine, despite the potential impact on her approval ratings. She has also expressed support for legal immigration, vowing to take in almost half a million migrants.
A break with China under the BRI would further solidify Italy as a reliable US ally. However, China’s state-run newspaper, Global Times, warned against sacrificing cooperation with China to gain something from the US, calling it a miscalculation. Chinese professor Cui Hongjian highlighted China’s advocacy for free trade and an open economy, contrasting it with what he described as the US’s approach driven by unilateralism and protectionism.
The decision on whether to withdraw from the BRI poses a challenge for Italy as it seeks to navigate its relationships with both China and the US. Italy’s experience with the initiative serves as a lesson for other countries considering participation in the BRI. It highlights the need for careful evaluation of the potential benefits and risks associated with joining such initiatives. As Italy explores its options, the outcome of its decision will have implications not only for its economic ties but also for its geopolitical position in the evolving global landscape.