Italy's BRI withdrawal shines light on ties ahead of EU-China summit
PM Meloni makes move after calculating that membership failed to yield benefits.Italy's decision to pull out of China's Belt and Road Initiative has placed a spotlight on the relationship between the two countries and comes at an awkward time for Beijing, a day ahead of a summit it is holding with Europe.
Italy is the only member of the Group of Seven wealthy nations to have joined Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature infrastructure initiative. This month, it became just one of five countries whose citizens have been given visa-free status to visit China.
"For China, it's certainly a snub," said Marc Julienne, head of China research at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, pointing to the fact that China has just celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Neither country has officially confirmed Italy's withdrawal, but the news was widely reported on Wednesday by media companies citing government sources. Italy is believed to have formally submitted its plan a few days ago. BRI partners are under obligation to give three months' notice ahead of an automatic renewal of their membership for five years and Italy's is due in March.
Italy's right-wing leader, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, has made no bones about wanting to abandon the membership. Even before she had gained power in October last year, she said that Italy's decision to join the BRI in 2019 was a "serious mistake." The foreign minister had also complained in September that the BRI had not produced the results hoped for.
BRI inflows are hard to distill from investment figures but the growing trade imbalance between China and Italy is telling. Italy's exports to China increased just 19% to $17.3 billion from 2019 to 2022, but its imports from China jumped nearly 71% to $60.5 billion in the same period, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Given the existing sticking points between China and Europe over geopolitical issues, in particular Beijing's warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been sanctioned by the West over Russia's war with Ukraine, the meeting in Beijing is expected to be "an icy summit," said Julienne. Europe wants China to broker an end to the war, but Beijing has refused to condemn Putin.
Yet, even as Europe seeks to distance itself from China, individual countries also realize they need to keep workable relationships with the world's second-largest economy. At the G20 summit in Bali in September, Meloni had said that Italy's withdrawal from the BRI "would not compromise relations with China," laying the ground for such a move.
Italy is due to take over the G7 presidency next year, and Julienne said that Rome had taken stock and realized that it had gained "no benefits" while the relationship had become "costly for its image."
But as recently as September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had hailed the fruitful relationship with Italy under the BRI, following a meeting with his Italian counterpart.
Analysts said, however, that Beijing could be muted in its reaction. "It is not in its interest to react too vehemently in this context," said Julienne.
>> Read the full article on the website Nikkei Asia