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Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni has said Rome wants to forge stronger ties with China, even as it considers pulling out of Beijing’s controversial Belt & Road Initiative in the coming months.
“The issue is how to ensure a partnership that can be mutually beneficial, regardless of the choices we make on the BRI,” Meloni said in a press conference on Sunday in New Delhi, at the end of the G20 summit.
Meloni met Chinese Premier Li Qiang on the margins of the summit to discuss the future of Italian-Chinese relations, as her government reconsiders Italy’s participation in President Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy initiative.
Italy’s 2019 decision to sign-up to the BRI — the only G7 nation to have joined the Chinese trade and infrastructure scheme — dismayed Rome’s western allies, especially Washington, and Meloni has in the past called the move, which was made by a previous government, “a mistake”.
Italian officials say Rome is now seeking to extricate itself from BRI without provoking Chinese wrath or retaliation, and to find alternative ways to deepen economic ties.
Meloni signalled her government’s intent to recalibrate relations with Beijing in June, when it restricted Chinese chemical giant Sinochem’s shareholder rights in the Milan-listed tyremaker Pirelli, citing national security concerns.
Meloni noted the “friendly and constructive atmosphere” of her weekend talks with Li, saying several European countries that never joined the BRI had nevertheless “managed to forge more beneficial relationships with China than we did”.
She reiterated her intent to visit China, but said dates would not be fixed until the countries had reached an understanding on their bilateral co-operation and “how to strengthen it”.
China’s state news agency Xinhua said Li had told Meloni that Beijing hoped Italy would “provide a fair, just and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies”. The report made no specific mention of Pirelli.
China has been trying to persuade Italy not to pull out of the BRI, with foreign minister Wang Yi telling his visiting Italian counterpart Antonio Tajani last week that over the past five years their bilateral trade had increased to nearly $80bn from $50bn.
Wang also told Tajanai that “China and Italy should adhere to the right way of getting along with each other”, with mutual respect and trust, despite geopolitical tensions, Xinhua reported.
In an article on Tajani’s visit, the state-run China Daily quoted an analyst blaming the US for pressuring Italy to withdraw from the BRI.
Italy’s BRI membership will be automatically renewed for five years in 2024, unless Rome formally notifies Beijing of its intent to pull out in the coming months.
Michele Geraci, who as a former under-secretary in Italy’s ministry of economic development advocated for Rome’s joining up to the BRI, has publicly argued that Meloni’s government has no real strategy to deal with Beijing and that Italian companies and citizens who work with China would pay a heavy price if Rome pulls out of the programme.
Meanwhile, EU council president Charles Michel, who met with Li separately in New Delhi, said afterwards that there was a “shared interest” in holding a EU-China summit before the end of this year, but that “high-level sectoral dialogues” were necessary to prepare for it.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in New Delhi