Don't let quitting BRI become Italy's regret: Global Times editorial
Published: Aug 01, 2023 12:28 AM
Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni Photo: VCG

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni Photo: VCG

Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto said in an interview recently that the previous government made an "improvised and atrocious" decision when it joined the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The issue today is, he said, how to walk back (from the BRI) without damaging relations (with Beijing).

This is the strongest message sent by a cabinet minister of the current Italian government since speculation that Italy may not renew the China-Italy BRI MOU surfaced. However, it must be pointed out that it's abnormal for a defence minister to make such remarks.

It's known to all that the BRI is a regional economic cooperation framework, which has nothing to do with national defense. To evaluate its actual achievements, it should be the foreign trade department, the economic development department, or even the treasury department that are qualified. As Italian Defence Minister, Crosetto is inappropriate to take the lead to "blast" Italy's economic cooperation with China, even just from the perspective of his position alone, and his statement is also seriously inconsistent with the facts.

For example, he said the BRI multiplied China's exports to Italy but did not have the same effect on Italian exports to China. But in fact, for more than four years, the bilateral trade volume between China and Italy has repeatedly hit new highs. From 2019 to 2022, it increased by nearly 42 percent against the trend. Last year, it reached nearly $78 billion. From 2019 to 2021, Italy's exports to China increased by 42 percent. In the first five months of this year, Italy's exports to China increased significantly by 58 percent. These figures irrefutably reflect the strong effect of the BRI, which is not what Crosetto said at all.

However, on the other hand, although the statement made by the Italian defence minister is very awkward, it seems "normal" in today's political environment in the US and Europe. In terms of economic cooperation with China, it is often the security and defense officials who have the most radical attitude, the officials who are actually in charge of the economy appear to be much more "moderate" instead. This exactly shows how serious the US and the West over-stretch security issues. Crosetto is just the latest example.

In addition, the timing of Crosetto's rhetoric is also doubtful, and the US is obviously behind it. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has just concluded her visit to the US. There have been speculations that Meloni might withdraw from the BRI to show loyalty to the US, but it was proved untrue afterward. But after meeting with US President Joe Biden, Meloni said that the Italian government will make a decision on the BRI before December, emphasizing "keeping a constructive dialogue open with Beijing," and revealing her willingness to visit China. This also reflects Italy's current dilemma: It wants Washington's political recognition, but it is unwilling to give up economic cooperation with China, and it does not want to pick just one.

It is clear who is responsible for Italy's current difficult situation. Since it decided to join the BRI in 2019, the US has exerted strong pressure on it and almost labelled Italy as a "traitor of the West." At that time, the New York Times even described Italy as a "Trojan Horse" of the Western world, "allowing China's economic — and potentially military and political — expansion to reach into the heart of Europe." After the change of the Italian government, Washington saw an opportunity and stepped up pressure on it. Just before Meloni's visit to the US, John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, publicly "educated" Italy about "the lack of reward for economic partnerships with China" and said that "We've created an alternative."

This is indeed an intriguing scene. While the US and the West are hyping vigilance against the BRI, they have also launched "imitations" of the BRI, such as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment of G7 and the Global Gateway Initiative of the European Union. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, said Kishore Mahbubani, a former diplomat who served as Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations. The US and the West learn from and imitate the BRI while suppressing and smearing it, further showing that the BRI was put forward with a long-term vision and in line with the general trend of the times. Unlike the multilateralism upheld by the BRI, history has given answers time and time again to what role the "imitations" based on geopolitics and hegemony can play. 

As the only country in the G7 that has signed the MOU on the BRI, Italy's priority in China's foreign relations and the status of China-Italy relations in China-EU relations had been significantly improved, resulting in many direct and indirect positive effects. It also puts Italy in a unique and advantageous position to connect the East and the West. If we only see from a pragmatic point of view and purely from Italy's national interests, joining the BRI is undoubtedly beneficial. But if it is mixed with geopolitics and the pressure and coercion of the US, things will become complicated. We hope that Italy can make a rational decision without external interference. This is the time to test Italy's political wisdom and diplomatic autonomy.