Italian Foreign Minister visits China, a signal of 'seeking cooperation and dialogue'
Rome's possible withdrawal from Belt and Road pact not fundamental setback for China-Italy ties: experts
Published: Sep 03, 2023 10:02 PM Updated: Sep 04, 2023 12:22 AM
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani Photo: VCG

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani Photo: VCG

Ahead of Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani's visit to China, the Italian official said that trade between the two countries did not meet expectations, which Western media interpreted as a hint that the only G7 country is preparing to withdraw from cooperation within the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Some Chinese experts said whether Rome's possible withdrawal would become a major setback for China-Italy relations depends on how discussions between the two sides progress, but the impact should not be "fundamentally detrimental" for bilateral ties.  

Tajani is scheduled to pay an official visit to China from Sunday to Tuesday, which is also seen as a signal of seeking cooperation and dialogue in spite of some noises surrounding BRI cooperation, experts said. 

Before leaving, he said at the European House Ambrosetti economic forum that BRI cooperation "did not bring the results we expected," Reuters reported on Saturday. 

In an interview with Bloomberg, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's deputy said the BRI cooperation pact "was a decision made in the past." Regardless of what Italy decides regarding the pact, "it will not be a message against China," he said. 

Some Chinese experts believe that Italy has put itself in a difficult position. On one hand, it has been facing growing pressure from the US-led Western allies, and its domestic political struggle made the China-proposed BRI pact a major target, while on the other hand, it hopes to keep the benefits of cooperating with China by maintaining open dialogue channels. 

Tajani's trip to China, which is seen as paving the way for a future visit by Meloni, still offers an opportunity for the two sides to thoroughly consider how much weight the BRI cooperation carries in the China-Italy ties and what the major impacts would be if Rome decides not to renew the BRI cooperation pact, some experts said, noting that the impact, however, should not be fundamentally detrimental for China-Italy relations.  

BRI in focus 

Tajani told the forum that Italy wants to continue to work closely with China, but "we must also analyze experts, the BRI has not produced the results we were hoping for," the official was quoted as saying in a report by the AFP on Saturday. 

The Italian official laid out a slew of trade data, saying that Italian exports to China in 2022 were worth 16.5 billion euros ($17.8 billion), whereas the figures for France and Germany were much higher at 23 billion and 107 billion euros respectively, according to the media report. 

"To some extent, the Meloni administration now wants to use its so-called withdrawal from the BRI pact as evidence that it has returned to mainstream Western politics. Clearly, there's significant political influence and pressure from the US and other Western countries," Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

"To tackle the trade deficit, we must respect market rules. How much advantage do Italian products have in the Chinese market? This is not a problem of the Chinese government nor BRI cooperation, and they understand that," Cui said, noting that the Italian foreign minister is now merely looking for a way out as the Italian government might make adjustments to the BRI policy in the future.

Meloni's far-right populist Brothers of Italy party is dominant in the incumbent government and noises about BRI deal renewal have been on the rise ever since the power change in 2022, some experts said. Recently, Guido Crosetto, Italian defense minister, has added to recent clamor that this G7 and NATO member state might exit the BRI, describing the decision to join the framework as "improvised and atrocious."

Meloni said she and US President Joe Biden discussed Italy's participation in the BRI during her most recent visit to the US, but that Washington's approach was not to dictate Italy's policy on China, according to media reports. 

While the BRI pact is due to renew automatically in March 2024, Italy has been making some noises about its possible decision but is emphasizing that it will not upset China, which is a balancing act, Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

"There might be some impact if the Italian government decides not to renew the pact, for example, there won't be the same investment guarantee and the opportunity of setting investment rules for the BRI if it withdraws," Wang said. "But those impacts won't be a fundamental setback [for China-Italy relations]."

The agreement reached between China and Italy under the framework of the BRI covers investment, infrastructure, technology, trade and other aspects. The Chinese ambassador to Italy Jia Guide told the Global Times in a previous interview that under the BRI pact, the practical cooperation in various fields has brought tangible benefits and positive effects for both nations and their people.

Although the visit signals there is some "goodwill" from the Italian government to further cooperate with China, if Rome decides to "withdraw from the BRI pact, some projects under the pact will surely be affected," Cui said. 

"Will the withdrawal become a major setback in the China-Italy relations? This is something that China needs to carefully think about, and it will be decided by how the two sides discuss it," the expert added. 

Consecutive visits 

Following the visits of US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Canada's Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to China, Tajani is the fourth senior official from a G7 country to visit China in a week.

Although Raimondo's visit to China yielded some positive results, some experts said Beijing should still be cautious about the future development of China-US relations. Major Western countries such as Canada and the UK have long aligned with the US on broad issues, but the need for pragmatic cooperation with China, especially in the economic and trade sectors, is also prominent, they noted. 

"Those countries' China policies have been greatly affected by Washington. As long as US-China relations improve, their relations with China will show positive signs," Wang said, noting that some Western countries like Italy need to continue cooperation with China to boost their economic recovery. 

China and Italy are comprehensive strategic partners and the China-Italy relationship is an integral part of China-Europe relations. In recent years, China and Italy have maintained close high-level interactions, deepened practical cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, and demonstrated a positive momentum of growth, Wang Wenbin, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a press conference on Friday. 

"China stands ready to work with Italy to take this visit as an opportunity to further deliver on the important common understandings between leaders of the two countries, cement political mutual trust, deepen practical cooperation, enhance multilateral coordination, promote the sound and steady development of China-Italy and China-Europe relations and jointly address global challenges," the spokesperson said.