In late July 2023, the Italian Minister of Defence, Guido Crosetto, declared that the decision made by Italy under the government of Giuseppe Conte in 2019 to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) had been atrocious. He further stated that the current administration, led by Giorgia Meloni, aimed to disengage from this initiative without causing offense to China. The agreement regarding Italy’s participation in the new Silk Road initiative is expected to be automatically renewed in March 2024.
The Meloni government argues that during this period, Chinese imports to Italy increased by over 50% while Italian exports only rose by a quarter. However, it is not clear whether this is genuinely the rationale for the withdrawal from the BRI. The memorandum of understanding signed between Rome and Beijing lacks concrete objectives and merely expresses the intention to enhance cooperation across all sectors. Signing or not signing this protocol yields no substantial impact on trade dynamics. This is particularly illustrated by the fact that Germany, despite not joining the BRI, is the primary commercial destination in Europe for trains traversing the transcontinental corridor linking China and Europe.
The fundamental question is therefore why Rome seeks to depart from the BRI when it is an ostensibly non-binding agreement. It is noteworthy that the decision to leave came from the Minister of Defence rather than the Ministers of Foreign Affairs or External Trade. When the Conte government signed the memorandum in March 2019, the United States cautioned Rome about doing so. Media outlets sensationalized the event, stating that Italy became the first G7 nation to join the BRI. Some even claimed that it was the first European Union member state to do so, although this was not true as a majority of Central and Eastern European states had already done so without issue. Following Italy’s decision, Portugal and Luxembourg in Western Europe signed similar memoranda with China. In all these cases, official cooperation under the BRI was halted. Lithuania, which had joined the BRI in 2017, subsequently clashed with Beijing over the Taiwan question in late 2021. This led Vilnius to exit the 17+1 initiative aimed at strengthening cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe. Central European states have grown skeptical of the BRI and are no longer interested in renewing their agreements with Beijing.
The war initiated by Russia in Ukraine reshuffled the geopolitical deck. China’s unclear stance on the issue prompted European states to reassess their relations with China. The conflict demonstrated to Europeans that their preferred partnership lies with the United States. By intending to withdraw from the BRI, Italy is conveying a symbolic message to Washington that the transatlantic relationship takes precedence.
Other factors may also be motivating Rome’s imminent withdrawal. The BRI has proven disappointing as Italy did not become the gateway into Europe for Chinese investors. Although Venice regularly appeared on official BRI maps because of its historical legitimacy tied to Marco Polo, it was Trieste, just a few kilometers away, which was seen as a potential hub for the new Silk Road routes in Italy. However, negotiations became protracted and potential Chinese investors lost interest. The Italian authorities’ failure is also attributed to their lack of coordination with other ports in the region, including Koper (Slovenia) and Rijeka (Croatia) on the Adriatic Sea. The absence of coordination fueled intense competition among these ports, which deterred Chinese enterprise.
The BRI’s allure has also somewhat faded. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire world was rushing to join, including Caribbean nations located far from the original Silk Road route. While there were setbacks, such as the case of Hambantota Port which jeopardized the Sri Lankan economy, overall confidence in the BRI was strong and Chinese investments were flowing into numerous infrastructure projects. Today, the landscape has shifted, as China is investing abroad and favoring Global South destinations like Africa and Southeast Asia. Italy has little left to hope for in terms of grand infrastructure projects but could still attract Chinese investors outside the BRI framework.
Finally, Rome is keen to avoid any potential negative reputation from being linked to the BRI and Beijing. China’s political approach often emphasizes power dynamics and it is not in Rome’s interest to align with a less internationally appealing program. Additionally, Rome aims to be a significant stakeholder in the European Union’s Indo-Pacific cooperation strategy launched in 2021, which may not be compatible with the BRI. For Rome, departing from the BRI is also a means of asserting itself as a consequential power in Europe and among its American partners.
[Photo by Italian Government, CC BY-SA 3.0 IT, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a public affairs consultant. He works for projects related to EU Indo-Pacific relations.