Italy’s BRI dilemma worsens as ‘pressure from US, EU mounts’

July 31, 2023 —

Shift also driven partly by incumbent govt’s right-wing nature: expert.
The defense minister of Italy, Guido Crosetto, has added to recent signs that this Group of Seven (G7) and NATO member state may tend to leave the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), describing the decision to join the framework as “improvised and atrocious.”

Italy’s policy turn is driven partly by the incumbent government’s right-wing nature, but is more a dilemma resulting from mounting pressure from the US and the EU against the backdrop of intensifying geopolitical confrontation, observers said on Monday.

According to Crosetto, “The issue today is: how to walk back (from the BRI) without damaging relations (with Beijing). Because it is true that China is a competitor, but it is also a partner,” Reuters reported Sunday.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, after a meeting with US President Joe Biden, said on Thursday that her government was still deliberating on whether to renew the BRI agreement and announced a trip to Beijing in the near future.

Meloni earlier said the decision to stay or leave will be finalized by December and the issue required discussions with the Chinese government and within the Italian parliament.

The joint construction of the BRI has provided a new platform for pragmatic cooperation between China and Italy, achieving numerous practical results in economy, trade and business cooperation, a spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Monday.

Further exploring the potential of jointly building the BRI is in line with the interests of both sides, the spokesperson said.

Meloni’s far-right populist Brothers of Italy party is dominant in the incumbent government and noises about BRI deal renewal have been on the rise ever since the power change in 2022. The incumbent government has tended to stand with the US on political and security issues and interprets the BRI as a risk and even a threat rather than a framework for win-win cooperation, Zhao Junjie, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of European Studies, told the Global Times on Monday.

A defense minister commenting on BRI also demonstrated Europe’s sweeping trend of over-stretching security concepts on economic and trade issues, which Italy alone can hardly resist, Zhao said.

Both Meloni and Crosetto have expressed the necessity to preserve China relations even without the BRI pact, which will renew automatically in March 2024 if neither side opts out.

Maintaining ambiguity on the issue is Italy’s approach to maximize its room for operation as the country is put under pressure under intensifying geopolitics, Zhao said, noting that the defense minister is responding to US pressure while the Italian government is still weighing the costs and gains.

Critics of BRI said it did not bring about substantial benefits to Italy, but the fact is the bilateral trade volume between China and Italy has repeatedly hit new highs during the past four years.

Official data shows that in the first five months of 2023, Italian exports to China increased by 58 percent, with Chinese analysts saying it showcases the resilience and potential of bilateral trade.

Exports to China have grown by more than our French and German competitors’ during the period since the signing of the BRI MoU, and the potential for joint investment projects in Asia and Africa, now that we have exited three years of COVID, is apparent, Michele Geraci, former undersecretary of state at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, told the Global Times previously.

Geraci believes the massive coverage of every single expression and comment Italy has made on BRI is more media hype, as the government decision is yet to be made and does not have to be made before the deadline.

Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, also stressed that China should not fall into the narrative trap set by Western media of equating Italy’s decision on BRI to its attitude to China relations.

Italy has not changed its attitude on pragmatic cooperation with China, but the BRI is an easy target due to the West’s bloc confrontation with China, and Italy’s signing of the MoU has increasingly been seen as a political burden for this G7 and NATO member, Cui said.

Ultimately, the BRI is for win-win cooperation, rather than a coercive alliance that imposes duties and binding clauses on members. If Italy ultimately yields to external pressure and domestic far-right waves, “it is a pity but no big deal to BRI itself,” Cui noted.

There might be twists and turns, but the prospects of BRI hinge on how many projects can be implemented and how many benefits participants can enjoy, not on how many members stay in the framework, some analysts said.

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