Italy Withdraws from China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Impact and Considerations

Italy has officially announced its withdrawal from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a major trade and infrastructure project initiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. This decision by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s administration marks a significant shift in Italy’s foreign policy and has implications for Italy-China relations, as well as broader geopolitical dynamics. The move has already been criticized by the United States and raises questions about Italy’s economic future and its position within the European Union (EU).

The BRI, with an estimated investment of $1 trillion, aims to connect China with Europe and other parts of Asia through the development of new and upgraded railways, ports, and infrastructure. Italy was the only major Western nation to have signed up to the BRI in 2019, which drew strong criticism from the US and other countries at the time. The US has consistently accused China of engaging in “debt-trap diplomacy,” asserting that large BRI projects burden countries with unsustainable debts and give Beijing significant leverage over their domestic affairs.

Italy’s decision to withdraw from the BRI comes amidst concerns about the long-term economic implications and strategic influence exerted by China. Despite initial promises of substantial investment in Italy, only a fraction of the expected 20 billion euros worth of investments materialized. Furthermore, Italian exports to China have not seen significant growth, while Chinese exports to Italy have surged over the past year. These imbalances raise questions about the economic benefits of participating in the BRI.

The withdrawal from the BRI also reflects Italy’s shifting foreign policy priorities under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Since taking office, she has pursued a more pro-Western and pro-NATO stance, diverging from the policies of her predecessors. By distancing Italy from China’s ambitious project, Meloni aims to strengthen ties with traditional allies and align more closely with EU partners.

The impact of Italy’s withdrawal on China’s BRI and its broader objectives remains to be seen. Italy was the largest of the 18 EU members to have participated in the BRI, particularly in the eastern and southern regions of the continent. As Italy’s membership was due to be automatically renewed in March 2022, this decision marks a significant setback for China’s BRI efforts in Europe.

The withdrawal also comes ahead of an important summit between EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the meeting, von der Leyen is expected to raise concerns about China’s trade practices, particularly regarding cheap goods such as solar panels and electric cars flooding the EU market. Italy’s withdrawal may amplify the European Union’s cautious approach towards China and lead to increased scrutiny of Chinese economic activities within EU member states.

While Italy’s decision to exit the BRI demonstrates a reevaluation of its relationship with China, it is essential for Italy to manage its withdrawal carefully. It must maintain good relations with China and avoid potential economic repercussions. Italy’s economy heavily relies on trade, and any deterioration in trade relations with China could have negative consequences. Additionally, Italy needs to ensure that its departure from the BRI does not strain its alliances within the European Union, as unity among member states remains crucial to address geopolitical challenges effectively.

The withdrawal of Italy from the BRI marks a significant development in the geopolitics of Europe and China’s global ambitions. It underscores a growing skepticism towards China’s economic influence and raises questions about the long-term sustainability of the BRI. Italy’s decision serves as a reminder of the complexities and considerations that participating nations must navigate when engaging with such ambitious projects. As other nations assess their involvement with the BRI, this move by Italy may influence their own decisions in the future.