In a massive jolt to China, Italy has formally withdrew from the Chinese Belt and Road Infrastructure initiative (BRI), almost four years after becoming the only nation among the G7 countries to sign up for the project, government officials familiar with the developments told news agency AFP.
Italy was the first and only G-7 country to join the program in 2019, raising concerns from the US that it would enable China to gain control of key technologies and sensitive infrastructures.
Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in a separate report said that Rome conveyed the decision to counterparts in Beijing three days ago but there has been no official statement from either side. Officials told the news agency that Italy pulled out of the BRI in such a manner that kept “channels of political dialogue open”, without giving much detail.
It should be noted that Italy in September, during the New Delhi G20 Summit, became one of the signatory countries in the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEE EC) and signed the memorandum of understanding on Day 1 of the summit.
BRI failed to meet Italy’s expectations
Italy, like numerous other countries engaged in the Belt and Road Initiative, had struggled with a growing trade deficit with China. The country had hoped to use the BRI to attract investments and broaden its exports’ reach into the vast Chinese market, but couldn’t meet the expectations. As Italy departs from the BRI, several other countries are also reassessing their partnerships with China in light of the initiative’s failure to yield significant returns.
The right-wing government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, which took office last year, had openly said it was considering exiting the agreement signed with Beijing, under which Chinese banks and companies planned to build everything from power plants, railways, highways and ports to telecommunications infrastructure, fiber-optic cables, and smart cities around the world.
With its five-year memorandum of understanding up for renewal in March 2024, Italy had repeatedly expressed frustration over the initiative’s unmet promises. Under the original agreement, the two parties could end the deal after five years, otherwise, the partnership would get extended for another five-year term. Italy had until the end of 2023 to inform China on whether it wanted to end the deal.
China’s Road and Belt initiative was a ‘Trojan Horse’ for Italy
Critics of the BRI say the trillion-dollar investment scheme could be a predatory “Trojan horse” aimed at buying political influence. Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani said in September that membership “has not produced the results we were hoping for”.
Even as China has spent millions of dollars into infrastructure projects in Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Sri Lanka, along West Africa and provide telecom infrastructure for Latin Americans and southeast Asians, experts also see the BRI as a tool for spreading Chinese influence across the world.
The BRI deal was due for automatic renewal in March 2024 unless Italy opted out by the end of this year.
According to Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera, Beijing was given three days ago a letter informing the government that Rome would not be renewing the pact.
The EU itself has come to view the BRI as a serious challenge.
In response to the BRI, the EU created in 2021 what it dubbed the Global Gateway, described as “the EU’s positive offer to partner countries in support of their resilience and sustainable development.”
The EU pledged to invest €300 billion ($350 billion) between 2021 and 2027 in projects ranging from fighting climate change to health, energy, transport, infrastructure and digitalization. European funding pales in comparison to the more than $2 trillion that Beijing has poured into overseas construction projects and various forms of investment over the past two decades.