Meloni says Biden never challenged her on BRI, but observers remain skeptical
Published: Jul 24, 2023 08:36 PM
Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni Photo: VCG

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni Photo: VCG

Before setting off on a state visit to the US, Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni claimed that US President Joe Biden never challenged her on the issue of Italy's participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Italy's denial was seen by Chinese experts as "self-acknowledgement" of Washington's pressure on Rome to pull out from BRI.

"The president of the United States has never directly raised the question with me," Meloni told a news conference following an international meeting on migration in Rome, Reuters reported on Sunday. Meloni is scheduled to visit the White House on Thursday. 

Bloomberg cited sources reporting on Monday that Meloni could notify the US as soon as this week about her plan to pull Italy out of BRI.

The Italian Prime Minister is set to discuss the issue when she meets Biden at the White House later this week, the sources said, cautioning that a final decision has not been taken yet. 

"Italy's denial is a de facto acknowledgement that the US is exerting pressure on Italy to pull out of BRI. If Biden did not challenge Italy on the BRI, why is Meloni set to notify the US about Italy's decision on the initiative during her visit to the White House?" Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Monday.

Italy signed the BRI deal in 2019 under the administration of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. However, information has continued to circulate in recent months that Meloni's government is considering reversing the decision.

Italy became the first and, so far, the only G7 nation to sign a four-year contract with the initiative, which is set to be renewed automatically for another five years in March 2024 if neither side withdraws by giving three months' notice.

The Reuters article claimed that the BRI has produced little benefit for Italy over the past four years, with exports to China totaling €16.4 billion ($24.24 billion) in 2022 from €13 billion in 2019.

"After Italy joined BRI, the world economy was severely disrupted by COVID-19, the Russia-Ukraine crisis and other factors…the trade cooperation between China and Italy experienced an uptick in the past three years despite that turmoil," said Wang. He said it will be a "shortsighted" decision for Italy to pull out of BRI, as the revving up of China's economic recovery can bring more opportunities for both countries.

Data showed that the bilateral trade volume between Beijing and Rome totaled $77.9 billion in 2022, up 5.4 percent year on year.

Meloni said in May that Italy can have excellent relations with China even without being part of the BRI. "There are ongoing evaluations," she told lawmakers, "The issue must be handled carefully and respectfully, also involving the parliament." 

However, Wang believes that if Meloni signals her plan on BRI during her visit to the US, it will more or less impact China-Italy relations. "Despite Italy's repeated claim that the development of ties won't be thwarted without BRI, announcing her decision in the US will be seen as a clear signal that Italy is leaning closer to the US," Wang noted.

Jia Guide, Chinese ambassador to Italy, warned in an interview with Italian news outlet Fanpage in June that if Italy chooses to withdraw from BRI, a platform that demonstrates the political mutual trust and strategic cooperation with China, it will have a negative impact on Italy's image, credibility, and cooperation.

When countries around the world are "stepping on the gas pedal" in cooperating with China, "stepping on the brakes" and "going into reverse" are obviously not in the interests of the two countries, Jia said.