ROME, Dec 7 — Italy has withdrawn from China’s vast Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, more than four years after becoming the only G7 nation to sign up, a government source said Wednesday.

The long-expected decision was quietly communicated to Beijing three days ago without any official announcement, according to the Corriere della Sera daily.

An Italian government source confirmed to AFP on Wednesday that Rome had pulled out, giving no details beyond saying it was done in such a way as to “keep channels of political dialogue open”.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long been opposed to Italy’s participation in an initiative viewed by many as an attempt by Beijing to buy political influence — and whose economic benefits to Rome were limited.

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The deal was due to automatically renew in March 2024 unless Italy opted out by the end of this year.

But Meloni and her hard-right government were also wary of provoking Beijing and risking retaliation against Italian companies.

Without directly confirming the news, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said on Wednesday that Italy was seeking to “relaunch the strategic partnership” with Beijing.

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He told parliament that during a September trip to China he made clear Rome wanted to “promote better access to our products regardless of our participation” in the BRI.

News of the decision emerged on the eve of a high-level EU-China summit in Beijing on Thursday, the first of its kind since 2019 set to focus on trade.

Two trillion dollars

Beijing says upwards of 150 countries stretching from Uruguay to Sri Lanka have signed up to the initiative, a central pillar of President Xi Jinping’s bid to expand China’s clout overseas.

It says it has inked over two trillion dollars in contracts around the world, from high-speed rail tracks crisscrossing South East Asia and massive transport, energy and infrastructure works through Central Asia.

Proponents hail it for bringing resources and economic growth to the Global South — but it has also been slammed for saddling poor countries with enormous debt.

It has also given Chinese infrastructure firms a foothold in many emerging economies.

There are concerns, particularly among Western nations, that China is seeking to rebuild the global world order to its advantage, while opposition voices in BRI countries have also decried what they see as increasing Chinese influence in local politics.

Meanwhile, Washington has warned that China could use the initiative as a pretext to build up military bases around the world in the name of protecting BRI investments.

Limited impact

Italy, a member of the European Union, the G7 grouping of advanced economies and Nato, signed up in 2019 under the government of then prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

Before taking office in October 2022, Meloni said that was a “mistake”.

The non-binding memorandum of understanding struck with China contained broad undertakings for cooperation in logistics, infrastructure, financial and environmental sectors.

But details were scarce and the lack of transparency fuelled distrust among Italy’s allies.

The economic benefits of the partnership also fell short of what had been expected, with Tajani admitting in September that membership “has not produced the results we were hoping for”.

Experts noted that other big European economies, such as Germany and France, did not join the BRI, but have nonetheless secured important trade and investment deals.

Western nations have also become more hawkish towards China since Italy signed the deal, noted Giuliano Noci, a China expert at the Milan Polytechnic business school.

But he told AFP he did not expect the decision to pull out to have major repercussions on trade.

Italy had “proposed a strategic partnership to the Chinese government that allows it to emerge from the affair with its head held high,” he said. — AFP