At the end of last year, Italy formally announced that it would end its participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), becoming the first state to withdraw from the project since its birth over a decade ago. The move has led many to fear that Italy’s exit is similar to other notorious trade exits throughout the Continent—and the world—à la Brexit.
The BRI, a global infrastructure investment project aimed at integrating other state economies with China’s, was initiated by President Xi Jinping and the Chinese government in 2013. Through the initiative, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has invested in 147 countries worldwide, focusing on non-western developing countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. As a result, Italy’s participation in the initiative came as a shock to the West. Established through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Jinping and former Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during Jinping’s visit to the country in 2019, Conte was looking to leverage China’s dominant economic position while bringing investors to Italy, where they were sorely needed.
However, this move troubled many of Italy’s allies, including the European Union (EU), as Italy was already a great benefactor of its various funding programs, and the United States, which saw in the growing Sino-Italian relationship the potential erosion of its own relationship with Rome.
Nevertheless, five years later, Italy still has unmet expectations. Chinese exports to Italy had grown by €17 billion euros, while Italian exports to China only grew by €4 billion. Despite the infrastructure development sponsored by the Asian giant, it quickly became apparent that Italy had gotten the short end of the stick. Considering Italy’s reputation as one of the most debt-ridden states in the EU, an increasing trade deficit with China turned the minds of policymakers.
Economic disadvantages were not the only reason Italy left the BRI. Europe is shifting away from Chinese trade. The European Commission began investigating Chinese electric vehicle exports in September 2023. Pressured by the economic realities of the trade partnership, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni began orienting Italy back towards the West, not just by exiting the agreement but by reaffirming Italy’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Meloni’s primary goals are supporting Ukraine’s efforts and bettering Italy’s transatlantic relationships. In her view, stronger ties with China hindered this goal, especially when it did not yield enough economic gains to justify the partnership.
As a result of Italy’s reorientation, it has moved closer to the West, leading the United States to begin initiatives that focus on trade with its regional partners, promising growth to all parties involved. With this in mind, the United States must continue to extend its hand to Italy, not solely because it should not take a Mediterranean and European ally for granted but also because the move inherently shines a light on its leadership. After years of expressed neutrality vis-à-vis China-U.S. tensions, Italy’s BRI exit offers the United States a chance to demonstrate why closer U.S. ties are more rewarding than closeness with its fiercest geopolitical competitor.
Furthermore, the United States must authoritatively signal to others in the region why the security and economic prosperity it offers remain unmatched. Italy can then be used as a case study, symbolizing regional discontent. Italy’s actions can also be seen as an opportunity for the United States in other ways.
Because of its dominant position in the Mediterranean Sea, it remains an essential ally to the United States, providing unparalleled access to crucial waterways. Therefore, the stronger the bond between the two countries, the better. Washington and its regional regional partners now find themselves in the perfect moment to reinvigorate, where needed, their strategic relationship with Rome.
Juan P. Villasmil is an Intercollegiate Studies Institute editorial fellow at The Spectator World. He is also a Young Voices contributor. His Twitter is @RealJPVillasmil.
Niccolò Comini is a political science student at Kenyon College. He often writes about Italian politics and foreign affairs.