Italian PM Meloni mulls pulling out of China's Belt and Road Initiative

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks during the "Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment" meeting during the second day of the G7 Summit Leaders' Meeting in Hiroshima on May 20, 2023. 

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

Good relations with China are possible even without being part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) deal, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said in an interview published Sunday, as her government weighs abandoning the project.

The revelations by the Italian PM could raise a new debate on whether the BRI has benefitted countries which signed on it, including those in Africa.

Italy is the only major Western country to have joined China's BRI scheme, which envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond with large infrastructure spending.

In an interview with Il Messaggero daily, Meloni said it was too early to anticipate the outcome of Italy's decision on whether to remain part of the project, which it signed up for in 2019, drawing criticism from Washington and Brussels.

"Our assessment is very delicate and touches upon many interests," said Meloni. The pact expires in March 2024 and will be automatically renewed unless either side informs the other that they are pulling out, giving at least three months' notice.

In an interview with Reuters last year, before she won power in a September election, Meloni made clear she disapproved of the 2019 move, saying she had "no political will ... to favor Chinese expansion into Italy or Europe."

Meloni noted that while Italy was the only one of the Group of Seven (G7) rich democracies to have signed the Belt and Road memorandum, it was not the European and Western country with the strongest economic and trade ties with China.

"This means it is possible to have good relations, also in important areas, with Beijing, without necessarily these being part of an overall strategic design," she said.

Earlier this month a senior Italian government official told Reuters Italy was highly unlikely to renew the Belt and Road deal.

A first test of the right-wing government's attitude toward China looms as Rome vets a shareholder pact at tire maker Pirelli's, whose top investor is China's Sinochem.

China is among the biggest markets for most countries in the G7 group, particularly for export-reliant economies such as Japan and Germany.

At a summit last weekend, G7 leaders pledged to "de-risk" without "decoupling" from China, an approach that reflected European and Japanese concerns about pushing Beijing too hard, officials and experts said.

BRI in Africa

While Italy mulls pulling out of the BRI, African countries are still in it, at least on paper, hoping to gain from China’s planned investments in infrastructure. Some 46 of the continent’s 55 states have signed on the BRI, making it an important constituency of the 140 140 countries across the world to have endorsed it.

Most of the countries have significant coastlines or serve as gateways into the hinterlands of Africa. They include Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Madagascar, South Africa and Mozambique, and lately, Eritrea.

In spite of its promise to serve acritical purpose of creating transportation arteries in Africa, and erection of energy infrastructure, critics have always said it could bring pitfalls.

Besides the fact that, ten years on, China has not yet pumped in the needed money to build the facilities, it could also cost the continent big debt. A report by the Africa Progress Panel had said Africa needs up to $63 billion to fully set up the connecting infrastructure. And China had, when it launched BRI, said it could pump in up to $1 trillion. That money may be in the form of loans.

Beijing has also indicated it encourages green investments and President Xi Jinping at a BRICS meeting, at the height of Covid-19, in 2020 said low carbon investments will be useful.

Yet some of China’s projects may just be the opposite. In Kenya, a court had to stop a coal plant in Lamu, a crucial tourism and conservation site. The High Court of Kenya stopped the project after environmentalists argued it would be harmful to the environment. Coal is considered one of the dirtiest fossil fuels but if African countries continue to use fossil fuels in transportation over the roads put up under the BRI, the damage to environment could rise.

There are also concerns that, besides coal, increasing mining and timber harvesting from BRI projects may just contribute to Africa’s environmental problem.

However, Beijing has recently said it encourages its corporate bodies in Africa to focus on innovations that will save the environment.

- Additional reporting by Aggrey Mutambo