Italy Looks To Unloop From Communist China’s Belt and Road Scheme

As tensions escalate between Washington and Beijing, Prime Minister Meloni seeks to show her loyalty to America, political analysts say.

AP/Andrew Medichini
The Italian premier, Giorgia Meloni, at the presidential palace, October 22, 2022. AP/Andrew Medichini

Prime Minister Meloni of Italy is likely to pull out of a scheme that has long helped Communist China expand its global influence and reach, the global infrastructure program known as the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Italy’s signing on to Communist China’s initiative in 2019 sent shockwaves through the European Union. Now Ms. Meloni is considering making Italy a rare participant to leave the program prior to 2024, when it is due for renewal. As tensions escalate between Washington and Beijing, Ms. Meloni seeks to show her loyalty to America, political analysts say.

Considering the symbolic importance of the Belt and Road Initiative, Ms. Meloni will experience pressure from Brussels, but Washington “will play a stronger role” in her decision to withdraw from the program, a professor of International Affairs at Hamilton College, Alan Cafruny, tells the Sun. 

Since being elected in October 2022, Ms. Meloni has “sought to show her loyalty” to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to Washington “by supporting Ukraine and condemning human rights violations in China,” Mr. Cafruny adds.

Rome signed on to Beijing’s Road and Belt scheme in 2019, when a populist politician, Giuseppe Conte, was prime minister. Italy became the only member of the Group of Seven leading economies to become part of the deal. Its move raised concerns among American and European Union leaders. At the time, analysts said the decision undermined Europe’s goal to counter Beijing. Unless Italy decides to exit the agreement, it will be automatically renewed in March 2024.

During a trip to Prague on Wednesday, Ms. Meloni told reporters that she has not made a decision yet and that the “debate is open.” She also repeated that she had opposed the decision to sign up for the initiative in the first place. 

The  G7 summit at Hiroshima, Japan, on May 19 may play a role in Ms. Meloni’s decision. Officials from America, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan will attend. America is expected to stir discussions on alternatives to the Belt and Road scheme, decrease Beijing’s technological advance, reduce dependence on its supply chain, and counter its animosity toward Taiwan, Reuters reports

The foreign affairs spokesman of Communist China, Wang Wenbin, said on Wednesday that there has been “fruitful cooperation” between Italy and Communist China on trade, manufacturing, and energy since signing the agreement. 

“The two sides should further tap into the potential in the Belt and Road Initiative, and step up mutually beneficial cooperation across the board,” Mr. Wenbin said in a press briefing.

Yet, since the signing of the agreement, the Beijing program has had little impact on Italy, Mr. Cafruny says. Exports to Communist China rose to $18.1 billion last year from $14.1 billion in 2019, according to Italian data. In contrast, Beijing’s exports to Rome rose to $62.7 billion last year, from $34.5 billion in 2019.

Countries that do not participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, such as France and Germany, are more dependent on trade with Communist China than Italy, Mr. Cafruny says. After meeting with Chairman Xi in April, President Macron of France said Europe must reduce dependence on America and avoid getting involved in the tensions between Beijing and Washington. 

Italy never “warmed up” to the Belt and Road Initiative, an international relations expert at the Italian Institute of International Affairs and University of Madrid, Gabriele Abbondanza, tells the Sun. Even when Prime Minister Conte, a populist, was in power, he says, “Italy never joined the Belt and Road Initiative in practical terms.”

Yet, despite populist and far-right components, Mr. Abbondanza believes many people who are part of the current government want Rome to leave the deal, and Ms. Meloni is leading that list.

“Prime Minister Meloni has always been very clear on her personal stance,” Mr. Abbondanza says. “She’s wary of China, she supports the rules-based order, and some of her past declarations show an open support for Taiwan as well.”

In a meeting with Ambassador Andrea Sing-Ying Lee of Taiwan last year, Ms. Meloni reaffirmed her stance of working with “those who believe in the values of freedom and democracy.”

In an interview with Reuters one month before she won last October’s presidential elections, Ms. Meloni said she will limit Communist China’s expansion. “There is no political will on my part to favor Chinese expansion into Italy or Europe,” she said.

The main question is “when” Ms. Meloni will pull out of the initiative, Mr. Abbondanza says, adding it could be in the upcoming months or right before the automatic renewal in March. 

“Nothing is certain in politics,” Mr. Abbondanza says, “but it’s undeniable that Rome is gradually distancing itself from an increasingly assertive China.”

The New York Sun

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