Italy Tells China It Will Exit Belt and Road Investment Pact

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(Bloomberg) -- The government of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni formally told China it would exit the Belt and Road Initiative, dealing a fresh blow to Beijing’s ambition to expand the massive investment program.

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The pact “has not produced the desired effects” and is no longer “a priority,” Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said at a Rome event Wednesday hosted by newswire Adnkronos. Countries not part of the pact “have had better results,” he added.

Meloni has for months been preparing the ground diplomatically to put an end to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature program. Italy was the only Group of Seven country to join the pact, launched a decade ago to boost economic ties and expand the influence of the world’s second-biggest economy.

Italy, like much of Europe, has been caught in the middle as tensions escalate between Washington and Beijing, and that’s been compounded by China’s support for Russia since it invaded Ukraine. The announcement comes as European Union leaders are due to visit China with a message that time is running out for Beijing to address a list of economic grievances before the bloc is forced to react.

European countries are struggling to balance a desire to engage with China on trade and investment while pushing back against claims of economic coercion and human rights concerns, as well as risks associated with becoming too dependent on supplies from China.

Italy’s participation, launched in 2019, was due to expire on March 22 and Italy had until the end of the year to decide whether it would renew.

Abandoning the program that China has rolled out — to build infrastructure and expand its influence mostly in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe — risks angering Beijing. China’s ambassador to Italy, Jia Guide, has warned there would be “negative consequences” if Italy “recklessly decides” to withdraw.

When asked about Italy’s decision at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described the initiative as “a most popular international public good.”

“China firmly opposes attempts to smear and sabotage Belt and Road cooperation,” he added.

Tajani pledged that Rome intends to continue to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries.

China’s global infrastructure and trade initiative drew an estimated $1 trillion in the decade since it was launched in 2013. But momentum has tapered off in recent years as the pandemic and China’s slowdown disrupted the global economy. Beijing has also faced accusations of being an irresponsible lender driving countries to default.

--With assistance from Philip Glamann.

(Updates with comment from China’s Foreign Ministry.)

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