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Italy reluctant to rekindle Belt and Road Initiative with China: official

Italy is highly unlikely to renew its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) deal with China, which expires early next year, but needs time to discuss the issue with Beijing, a senior government official said.

The official, who has knowledge of internal discussions over the matter, said a formal decision would not be made ahead of this month’s Group of Seven summit in Japan, adding that it was a highly sensitive topic.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s office declined to comment.

Italy in 2019 became the first and so far only G7 nation to join the hugely ambitious BRI programme, which critics said would enable China to gain get control of sensitive technologies and vital infrastructure.

The then prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, hoped the deal would give a lift to Italy’s underperforming economy, but over the past four years it has seen little benefit, with exports to China totalling EUR 16.4 billion (USD 18.1 billion) last year from EUR 13 billion in 2019.

By contrast, Chinese exports to Italy rose to 57.5 billion from 31.7 billion over the same period, according to Italian data.

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Italy’s main eurozone trading partners France and Germany exported significantly more to China last year, despite not being part of the BRI.

The government official said Rome would use this lack of economic development as an argument for not renewing the deal.

The pact expires in March 2024 and will be automatically renewed unless either side informs the other that they are pulling out, giving at least three months’ written warning.

In an interview with Reuters last year, before she won power in a September election, Meloni made clear she disapproved of Conte’s decision. “There is no political will on my part to favour Chinese expansion into Italy or Europe,” she said.

Meloni, who heads a conservative, nationalist coalition, has been keen to burnish her credentials as a committed pro-NATO, pro-Atlantic leader, catching the eyes of Western allies with robust, vocal support for Ukraine.

But she has been careful not to give offence to China, and government officials said Rome did not want to cause a diplomatic rupture.

China had to remain a partner, but Italy could not get into a situation where it was over-reliant on Beijing in any key sector, as had happened with Russia and its energy supplies, a second official said.

Meloni met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali last November and accepted an invitation to visit China, but a date has not yet been fixed.

Meloni has also not yet visited Washington and the government official said she did not want to travel to Beijing without having first been received by U.S. President Joe Biden.

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