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The backstory: Italy joined China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2019. That made Italy the only Group of Seven (G7) member to participate in the BRI. The main idea behind the initiative is to create better connectivity between Asia, Europe and Africa through various infrastructure projects. At first, it seemed like a win-win partnership, but there have been some concerns. For example, Italy's exports to China increased by €3.4 billion (US$3.7 billion) last year, which is good. Meanwhile, China's exports to Italy surged by a much-higher €25.8 billion (US$28.1 billion), raising eyebrows about the difference.
The BRI agreement will auto-renew after March 2024, but both sides can exit the deal with a three-month written notice. So, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni now has to decide if Italy should continue with the BRI or not.
More recently: In May, Meloni met with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and during their discussion, she reportedly hinted that Italy might not renew the BRI deal. She also shared her thoughts in an interview with Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, suggesting that maintaining strong relations with Beijing is possible even without being part of the initiative.
Last month, G7 leaders pledged to raise US$600 billion over the next five years to fund essential infrastructure projects in developing countries in a response to China's BRI plan, calling their initiative the "Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment."
The development: Last week, there was a meeting between Meloni and US President Joe Biden at the White House. The main focus of their discussion was to strengthen economic ties between the US and Italy. During their talk, they also touched on Italy's involvement in China's BRI, and Meloni said Washington’s stance was not to dictate Italian policy when it came to that topic. They also spoke about the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Biden gave a nod to Italy's firm support of Ukraine, and Meloni expressed pride in how the country’s upheld international law.
In a joint statement, the leaders highlighted the importance of cooperation and unity between the countries, making a commitment to continue supporting Ukraine and communicate on China relations.
On another note, the G7 summit is going to take place in Italy's southern region of Puglia in mid-June next year. Meloni made a point of choosing Puglia because it's seen as a crucial "bridge between the West and the East."
“The United States and Italy pledge to continue coordination, including within multilateral fora, on issues to advance global prosperity, inclusive growth, and peace and security,” said a joint statement from US President Biden and Italian Prime Minister Meloni following the meeting. “The United States looks forward to Italy’s leadership of the G7 in 2024, where the G7 will increase efforts to accelerate the clean energy transition, and tackle pressing global challenges, including the climate crisis, poverty, food insecurity, economic security, critical mineral supplies, and migration, further engaging in dialogue and cooperation on all these issues with developing countries, and especially with African countries.”
“Our national interest means also having a dialog with Beijing, and one can have good trade relations independently from the Belt and Road,” said Meloni in an interview on Canale 5. “The issue is finding the right balance.”
“Italy is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and what to do with the cooperation pact is a real diplomatic conundrum for Meloni,” said Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies research firm, in an interview, about Italy’s participation in the BRI. “Renewing it would send a very difficult message to Washington, but not renewing it would put a strain in relations with China.”
“China continues to welcome all initiatives to promote global infrastructure development,“ said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian about the G7’s infrastructure initiative. "We believe that there is no question that various related initiatives will replace each other. We are opposed to pushing forward geopolitical calculations under the pretext of infrastructure construction or smearing the Belt and Road Initiative.”