The Italian government may be about to formally endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), becoming the largest economy so far to get behind the massive global infrastructure project.
Hoping to attract more Chinese investment in its struggling economy, Rome could sign a memorandum of understanding within weeks, according to multiple reports.
If it signs the agreement with Beijing, Italy would be the first member of the G7 group of advanced economies to officially back the initiative, which is a signature policy of President Xi Jinping, with the US, Japan and the UK all reluctant to participate.
Michele Geraci, an official in Italy’s Economic Development Ministry, told the Financial Times the deal would hopefully be completed in time for Xi’s visit to the country in March. Media outlets in Italy also reported on the plan.
“We want to make sure that ‘Made in Italy’ products can have more success in terms of export volume to China, which is the fastest-growing market in the world,” Geraci said.
The possible announcement comes amid growing international resistance to Beijing’s global ambitions, including bans on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and a heated trade dispute with Washington.
Xi is expected to visit Italy at the end of this month before heading to France and eventually the US, where he will meet with President Donald Trump as the two trading partners attempt to negotiate an agreement on tariffs.
The BRI is a massive trade and infrastructure project that aims to link China to Europe, Africa and Asia through a series of new Beijing-funded ports, railroads and roads along land and sea trade corridors.
Neighboring economic giant India has been reluctant to participate in the BRI, but some regional partners such as Pakistan and Malaysia have enthusiastically joined in, along with dozens of other countries.
However, critics, especially the US government, have claimed that BRI projects impose massive debt on developing countries but provide little economic benefit. Some critics claim that China is using the project to expand its military and political sphere of influence.
The announcement of Italy’s participation would be welcome news for Beijing at a time when even some BRI member countries, such as Malaysia, have begun to have doubts about the potential benefits.
Italy’s decision would also coincide with a debate in Europe over the role Chinese Huawei should play in the introduction of new high-speed 5G networks. Countries including Britain and Germany are considering preventing mobile operators from using Huawei technology.
According to state-run news agency Xinhua, recession-hit Italy formed a China Task Force in October to explore economic opportunities in China including the possibility of endorsing the BRI.
China’s ambassador to Italy, Li Ruiyi, who attended the first meeting of the task force in Italy, said, “Italy and China were linked by the ancient Silk Road in the past. We expect the task force to help strengthen the two countries’ cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative and contributing to a closer EU-China relationship.”
Asked about the possible announcement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters Wednesday that “an increasing number of countries and international organizations” wanted to participate.
He added, “More and more of them have found this is indeed a very good platform for mutually beneficial cooperation since the Belt and Road was proposed six years ago. And we will release any information about this in time once we have it.”
– with reporting by CNN