Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni delivered a free and prosperous Europe a Christmas present earlier this month when she dumped Italy‘s Belt and Road initiative deal with Beijing.
Despite assurances from the center-left Democratic Party that initially orchestrated the deal, Italy, like most of the 17 countries in the European Union that signed agreements, never saw many tangible benefits from its relationship with China. Instead, Beijing used the agreements to bolster its global power and flex its influence.
More specifically, Beijing has used the Belt and Road to divide and marginalize Europe, buying ports and other critical infrastructure, cornering the market on telecommunications and other important business sectors, and pushing European nations to compete for attention and deals with China rather than work together in their own best interests.
Ms. Meloni has been reversing this dynamic and putting Europe ahead of China since day one. In 2022, just before the Italian legislative elections, Ms. Meloni expressed support for Taiwan, angering the Chinese Embassy. This past March, she visited India, strengthening ties between Rome and New Delhi, further downgrading the importance of the Chinese relationship.
As early as over the summer, before her July visit to Washington, Ms. Meloni signaled the end of the road for the Belt and Road deal was coming. But by finally cutting the cord, Ms. Meloni has signaled that she has had enough, demonstrating real courage and leadership and setting a good example for others in the trans-Atlantic community.
Nevertheless, Rome should not rest easy. China will likely implement political and trade retaliation against Italy. Beijing tried just that with Lithuania when Vilnius pulled out of the 17+1, the Chinese Communist Party’s diplomatic initiative in Eastern and Central Europe. Moreover, Beijing will continue to target Italian infrastructure, starting with securing a stake in the strategic port of Trieste, making Italy vulnerable to Chinese infiltration and putting pressure on the Atlantic Alliance in the Mediterranean.
To remain stalwart in its rejection of Beijing’s advances, Rome must look closer to home for investments. Take the port of Taranto, for example. As the Italian newspaper La Verita recently reported, it would have likely fallen into Beijing’s hands if not for a $60 million investment from a Polish consortium in the logistics sector.
But to transform individual instances like this into regular occurrences, Italy needs a broader strategic vision. Relaunching the Baltic-Adriatic corridor, which connects southern Europe to Poland as well as the Caucasus and Central Asia, is a promising idea. And Ms. Meloni has already proposed the Mattei Plan, a partnership with North and West Africa to build a community in the Mediterranean.
The most immediate and obvious next step, however, is for Rome to join the Three Seas Initiative, as Greece did in September. The “Three Seas” refers to the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas, and the well-established initiative already includes 13 states working together to build connectivity and create jobs, growth, stability and prosperity. This is the opposite of China’s malevolent vision for the region.
In joining, Italy would not only give the Initiative a strong foothold in the Mediterranean but also help strengthen its relationship with the United States, which it could work with to curb Chinese influence in North Africa, where Beijing seeks to expand its influence and put pressure on NATO’s southern flank. Likewise, Italy would also improve the initiative’s relationship with India, which offers opportunities to expand sources of energy and digital connectivity. In turn, both Washington and New Delhi could also increase their investment in Italy itself from a pro-Western and anti-Chinese perspective.
Encouragingly, Giorgia Meloni has already shown interest in the Three Seas Initiative. This past July, members of the Italian government attended an event that was organized in Rome by the embassies of Poland and Romania and that was specifically dedicated to this international forum. In addition, in September, the influential Italian think tanks Fare Futuro and the Machiavelli Center hosted international delegations on the prospective role of Italy in the Three Seas Initiative.
If Rome makes the jump and joins the Three Seas initiative, Ms. Meloni’s Christmas gift of leaving China could lead to a very happy—and prosperous—new year indeed.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times on 12/29/2023