Italy’s conservative government, led by Giorgia Meloni, faces a key decision: whether or not to renew Rome’s memorandum of understanding with China regarding the Belt and Road Initiative.
The memorandum was first signed in 2019 by then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who headed what was probably the most pro-Chinese government since the days of Marco Polo. Conti’s coalition government was supported mainly by the pro-Chinese Five Star Movement and the Italian Democratic Party.
The deal promised closer ties and investments to build trade between East and West. It certainly gave Beijing street cred in the West, but did it deliver anything for Italy?
Now, Meloni must decide whether the Belt and Road Initiative serves Italian interests.
Her conservative government seems deeply skeptical. The deal has not netted Italy much. Further, the current Italian government seems far less favorably disposed toward Beijing.
During the last election campaign, Meloni expressed support for Taiwan, irritating the Chinese embassy. Since then, her government has also staunchly supported Kiev against Moscow’s brutal aggression, sending weapons to Ukraine and strengthening ties with Poland—not the response Beijing wanted. Moreover, Meloni recently visited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and signed agreements in the defense sector. The potential for Italian-Indian cooperation is strong. This annoys Beijing to no end, since Delhi is a strategic rival.
Let’s face it. Italy and China have become an estranged geopolitical couple. It is time to drop the fiction of a strategic partnership. Meloni should tear up the MOU.
National security is another reason not to relaunch the agreement. China is infiltrating Italian ports. Significant risks are already emerging concerning the port of Taranto with future plans by the Ferretti Group, which is controlled by the Chinese state company Weichai. Beijing wants to use this facility to increase Chinese influence in the Mediterranean basin. That would eventually put NATO presence and influence in its own backyard under pressure.
Recently, the founder of the pro-China Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, urged the lawmakers of his party to favor Chinese investments in the port. This support from the political opposition has to make Chinese investment even less appealing for the government.
Meloni’s decision will have implications beyond Italy. The current Italian government is a laboratory for a potential alliance between two major conservative factions in the European Parliament—the EPP and the ECR. There are elections scheduled for 2024. A strong pro-U.S. bloc could marginalize the European Socialist Party, which has always been more pro-Russian and pro-Chinese. Meloni, who is chairman of the ECR, is the heart of this rebel political project. By not renewing the Chinese agreement, she can further strengthen her credibility in Washington and be seen in Brussels as a force to be reckoned with.
After French President Emmanuel Macron’s ludicrous pro-China statements in Beijing, a strong anti-China statement from Italy would put an even finer point on the future direction of leadership from Rome.
If Meloni rebuffs Beijing, Beijing will surely express its displeasure. Therefore, Italy’s friends—especially the U.S. and India—need to step up and demonstrate strong support.
Geopolitics aside, what Meloni needs to deliver on most is real economic growth, particularly in the southern part of the country. There are many potential projects there—concrete alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative—enough to make southern Italy the hub of growth in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rome, Washington, and other partners, including India, ought to be working together to bring these projects to fruition. That is the real payoff for putting Beijing in the rearview mirror.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive