Beijing’s (subdued) Belt and Road Initiative blowback. Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto made global headlines on Sunday after he called Rome’s entrance into Beijing’s power project an “improvised and heinous” act. The spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry replied with a somewhat restrained comment noting that “further tapping the potential of Belt and Road cooperation serves the interests of both sides.”
- Compared to the usual rhetoric, which oscillates from enthusiastically touting the BRI’s benefits to not-so-subtly threatening economic retaliation if Rome decides to leave it, this is definitely drier…
- …and the reason, as explored below, might well be that Beijing has accepted that Rome will exit.
A matter of framing. Minister Crosetto’s main criticism hinged on the mismatch between promises and deliverables: over the past years, the trade balance has tilted ever more heavily in China’s favour – as it tripled its exports to Italy – all while the BRI membership did not boost Italian imports to the level attained by other non-BRI countries.
- That doesn’t appear from the Chinese MFA’s cherry-picked data. The BRI, reads its statement, brought “numerous tangible outcomes in economy, trade and business cooperation” on both sides.
- “[I]n the first five months of this year, Italian exports to China surged by 58% year-on-year,” said the spokesperson, conveniently refraining from contextualising the data by factoring in the post-pandemic recovery effect and the better performance of other non-BRI countries – precisely as the umpteenth Global Times editorial on the matter does.
It’s not a matter of if, but when. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been careful to note that no decision has been taken yet. But as she reportedly signalled to United States congresspeople, Rome has already decided, and it’s working to make the transition as painless as possible to avoid turning China’s resentment into economic backlash.
- It’s no coincidence that, while in Washington, she announced an upcoming visit to Beijing, where she’s expected to communicate that Rome is willing to consolidate cooperation despite exiting the BRI.
Has the roadmap been decided? The BRI deal is set to auto-renew in March 2024 unless one of the parties explicitly walks out at least three months prior. According to Il Foglio, which cites Italian government sources, the Meloni executive intends to officialise Italy’s exit in September 2023 before her trip to China, slated to happen between late September and early October.
- The daily revealed that PM Meloni’s diplomatic staff “have already agreed on the timing of the exit with the Chinese government,” which in turn “has informally communicated its readiness to cancel the agreement without retaliation.”
In return, the Italian government is supposedly ready to “create new commercial deals with China” along the lines of those inked by French President Emmanuel Macron during his April visit to Beijing, which centred on cross-sectoral agreements between major companies in sectors ranging from transport and energy to agriculture and science.
- Effectively, this amounts to Italy dropping a politically-charged framework agreement and resetting its relationship with China to an economic partnership, aligning itself with the rest of the G-7 countries and most of the West and bringing to completion its Atlanticist, Draghi-initiated pivot away from Beijing.