Italy’s decision to withdraw from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) marks a significant shift in European attitudes towards Beijing and its expansive global infrastructure program. This move, announced by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, reflects a broader trend in Europe, where concerns about China’s growing influence and the implications for national economies and security are increasingly coming to the fore. It seems that Europe is starting to realize that BRI is designed to hurt them, not help them.
The BRI, launched by China in 2013, was envisioned as a modern-day Silk Road, linking China with other parts of the world through vast infrastructure and investment projects. Italy’s initial involvement in 2019, under former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, was a diplomatic triumph for Beijing, making Italy the first and only G7 country to join the initiative. However, Meloni’s decision to not renew the pact, which is set to expire in March 2024, is a significant departure from this course.
The rationale behind Italy’s withdrawal is multifaceted. Firstly, the anticipated economic benefits for Italy have not materialized as expected. While Chinese imports to Italy have surged, the reciprocal increase in Italian exports to China has been modest. This trade imbalance has raised concerns about the real advantages of the BRI for Italy’s economy.
Moreover, the growing awareness of the BRI’s potential for creating unmanageable debt burdens for participant countries has caused alarm within the European Union. The EU, which declared China a “systemic rival” in 2019, is now focused on de-risking its supply chains and securing sensitive technologies from Chinese influence.
The implications of Italy’s withdrawal from the BRI are profound for Europe. It underscores a growing skepticism within the EU about engaging too closely with China’s ambitious global plans. This skepticism is not just about economic imbalances but also concerns about sovereignty, security, and the EU’s strategic autonomy.
Furthermore, Italy’s decision could influence other European countries’ approaches to China and the BRI. It might encourage a more cautious stance towards Chinese investments and greater scrutiny of the geopolitical implications of such engagements. This shift could lead to a recalibration of the EU-China relationship, with European countries seeking a balance between economic cooperation and safeguarding their strategic interests.
Much like China’s loans have harmed the developing countries who have taken advantage, Italy’s participation has borne no fruit. China’s grand plan for regional trade has been revealed for what it is – a self serving power grab.