Double Blow for Beijing as Italy Says ‘Ciao’ to Belt and Road Boondoggle — and Washington Jump Starts Investments in Africa

Prime Minister Meloni’s course correction on lopsided commercial deals is shot across the bow to China’s communist mandarins.

Parker Song - Pool/Getty Images
Italy's prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, left, and President Xi at Beijing in 2019. Parker Song - Pool/Getty Images

Communist China’s Belt and Road initiative is being dealt a serious blow this week as Italy officially quit it, a move that will complicate Beijing’s quest for domination of major global infrastructure projects. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Thursday told reporters in the Bel Paese.

“I think we should maintain and improve trade and economic cooperation relations with China, but the Silk Road instrument has not given the expected results,” Signora Meloni said. She has been rising in regard among those watching the accession of right of center leaders in Europe.

That the Italian move was not unexpected was reflected in a too-clever-by-half statement made by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, ahead of Signora Meloni’s  announcement. “China opposes the denigration and sabotage of the initiative” as well as the “confrontation between blocs,” Mr. Wenbin whinged.

Italy formally exited Belt and Road, the initiative long championed by President Xi, with a letter delivered to Beijing. Italy had signed up for the initiative in 2019. It was the only G-7 country to do so. The writing has been on the Great Wall, so to speak, for months now. 

Shortly after a meeting in the summer between Signora Meloni and President Biden at the White House, Italy’s defense minister, Guido Crosetto, slammed Rome’s decision to tango with Beijing as “improvised and atrocious.” 

Instead of an increase in Italian exports to China, Mr. Crosetto said the deal “led to a double negative result. We exported a load of oranges to China, they tripled exports to Italy in three years.” Italy’s economy is the third-largest in the European Union.

According to Italian trade data, the country’s exports to China rose modestly to 16.4 billion euros last year from 13 billion euros in 2019, while Chinese exports to Italy nearly doubled.

France and Germany exported considerably more to China despite the fact that neither country joined the Belt and Road initiative, the name of which is a conscious nod to the fabled Silk Road of yore. Still, more than a hundred countries have signed agreements with China to cooperate on BRI infrastructure and building projects since the scheme was launched in 2013.

In August 2018, Greece floundered into position as the first European country to formally join Belt and Road, and China’s COSCO Shipping is now the majority owner of the Piraeus Port Authority. The Secretary of Commerce under President Trump, Wilbur Ross, once described that situation as a potential “Trojan horse.”

The Italian Prime Minister at the time, Giuseppe Conte, hoped for a trade bonanza when he signed up in 2019, but it was Chinese firms that seemed to be the main beneficiaries.

Rome’s reversal will be welcomed at Washington, which had warned that Italy could be putting itself at risk of Beijing making inroads on  sensitive technologies and vital infrastructure.

An Italian government source said that “We have every intention of maintaining excellent relations with China even if we are no longer part of the Belt and Road Initiative — other G-7 nations have closer relations with China than we do, despite the fact they were never in the BRI.”

Ms. Meloni’s decision to unbuckle Italy from Beijing’s global development strategy before the end of the year is a doubly savvy move on her part because Italy will assume the presidency of the G-7 in 2024.

Other dominos are falling on Beijing’s grand board game to rule the world, and beyond the Continent that means Africa, too. 

Resource-rich Angola was once the biggest recipient of funding from Beijing, but that looks to be changing as a fall in oil prices has left the country struggling to service its debts. Washington has now committed to allocating $2 billion to the southern African country.

The money will be used for infrastructure projects like bridges and solar power as well as a rail link that will eventually connect Angola to its neighbors. That is all good news for Africa and Luanda — but Beijing will certainly be getting the memo.

The New York Sun

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