Italy, China, and the Belt and Road Initiative

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Leonardo Bruni and Ádám Koi


Over the past two weeks, the Italian and Chinese press have extensively covered Sino-Italian relations, centered around the very likely possibility that Italy will not renew its Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China on cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), thereby withdrawing from the China-led global geo-economic strategy. This increased attention can be attributed to two significant events. The first was Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani’s trip to Beijing (September 3-5). The second was the G20 Summit in New Delhi (September 9-10), during which Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni had a sideline meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang.

The objective of this analysis is to provide an overview of the main perspectives expressed in both Chinese and Italian media during this pivotal moment in these two countries’ bilateral relationship.

On one hand, the Chinese media mostly emphasized the international causes of behind Italy’s decision, particularly the influence of the United States. While domestic Italian politics were also discussed as a possible contributing factor, it seemed to be considered of secondary importance. Chinese commentators and journalists primarily emphasized the message that although Rome’s withdrawal is unfortunate, it will not severely undermine the BRI. However, there was somewhat more ambiguity in their assessment of the future of Sino-Italian relations.

On the other hand, considering the sheer number of articles published in the Italian press on the issue, it is evident that the Meloni government’s decision to leave the BRI is perceived as far more salient in Italy than in China. Moreover, when discussing the motivations behind the likely withdrawal, Italian commentators mostly focused on the economic and trade dimension. While some did consider the role of American influence and domestic politics, the emphasis placed on these factors varied among analysts, contingent on their views of Washington and the Meloni government.

China Reacts to Italy's Decision: Unfortunate but not Catastrophic

Perceived as the centerpiece of Chinese leader Xi Jinping's foreign policy since its inception in 2013, the BRI has been a topic of contentious debate among experts in Europe and around the world. In its initial years, over a hundred governments signed MoUs, formalizing their countries participation in the BRI, a phenomenon often interpreted as a testament to China’s elevated status in global politics. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that the first “high-income country,” Italy, made the decision to join, sparking debates in Italy and within other G7 countries.

Similarly, Italy’s potential exit has now ignited discussions in the People’s Republic of China. With the writing now on the wall regarding Rome’s imminent withdrawal, Chinese commentators are all convinced that Rome leaving the BRI goes against the country’s best interests. For instance, Zhejiang University’s Professor Ma Xiaolin pointed out that Italy was “on the verge of bankruptcy” when it joined the initiative, and that decision to participate significantly contributed to the stabilization and strengthening of the Italian economy. [1] Cui Hongjian, a researcher of China Institute of International Studies, made a similar argument contending that Italian exports to China have been experiencing consistent growth since 2019. Therefore, the decision to leave the BRI solely due to trade deficit concerns is merely a “misleading excuse.” [2]

Yet, there exist somewhat different interpretations as to the rationale of Rome’s decision. The Global Times’ editorial team wrote that Italy is “over-stretching security issues” and, ultimately, its actions are the product of “US coercion.” [3] Liu Zhiqin, a senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University of China, also framed Italy’s potential exit from the BRI exclusively within the narrative that European countries are under American “hegemonic” pressure and are embracing the so-called “China threat theory.” [4]

In a less polemical tone, many Chinese analysts stated that Italy is mostly reacting to the shifts in the international situation. Cui Hongjian argued that Italy is now grappling with a grave dilemma imposed on it by the US: although it desires continued cooperation with China, it is reluctant to bear pressure and doubts from the West because of its involvement in the BRI. [5] For Cui, Italy’s continued participation in China’s infrastructure initiative might undermine its involvement in G7-backed schemes, such as “Build Back Better World” and the “Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment,” which are essential for Washington to counter Beijing’s growing influence. According to him, pressure coming from US through official and public opinion channels has greatly contributed to how the government in Rome currently perceives the BRI. Similarly, Zhang stated that although the concept of “strategic autonomy” gained momentum in the European foreign policy debate at the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much of the impetus is over by now. He suggested that the prolongation of the war has led to this trend persisting, leaving little room for China. [6]

In contrast, during a program broadcasted by CCTV, the famous Professor Zhang Weiwei, Dean of the China Institute, and Professor Huang Renwei, Executive Vice President of the Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance, considered the notion that Italy’s decision is the result of developments within Italian domestic politics. [7] In particular, Huang suggested that, among other reasons, the current Italian government’s desire to distinguish itself from its predecessors is likely a contributing factor. Ma Xiaolin, too, described Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s decision as “political posturing.” [8] Interestingly, we could not find any evidence that Chinese commentators believe or care about Meloni's statement on the Italian Parliament’s role determining the final resolution of this issue.

Against this background, Chinese observers interpreted Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani’s recent visit as a sign that Italy does not want to damage its bilateral relations with China. This sentiment was confirmed by Tajani during his meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. During their discussions, Tajani emphasized the bilateral component, in particular “fully realizing the potential of the Italy-China strategic partnership.” [9] Wang, on the other hand, underscored the need to strengthen cooperation, but also the importance of Italy “adhering to an independent foreign policy.”

During the meeting between Meloni and Chinese Premier Li Qiang at the G20 summit, the issues of Italy’s access to the Chinese market and the expansion of bilateral trade were discussed. While the Chinese side promised to create a better environment for high-quality Italian products in the Chinese market, they also emphasized the need for a "fair, just, and non-discriminatory" business environment for Chinese companies investing and operating in Italy. While the official Chinese communiqué does not explicitly mention the BRI or the Italian government's intention to withdraw, it touches upon the future of Sino-Italian relations within a bilateral framework rather than a multilateral one. As reported by Xinhua:

“[Li Qiang expressed that] China is willing to deepen institutional cooperation with the two sides, make good use of cooperation mechanisms such as joint meetings of government committees, and improve the level of cooperation between the two sides.” [10]

Finally, as to the impact of Italy’s exit from the BRI and what China should do about it, Professor Sun Liping from Tsinghua University affirmed that protecting Chinese existing economical partnerships is extremely important for China as it faces long-term “stagflation.” [11] It is also imperative for Beijing to minimize diplomatic losses, especially those related to the BRI − the Chinese top leader’s main instrument of “Major Country Diplomacy.” One of Beijing’s major concerns is that the exit of one could snowball and lead to the departure of many. Something similar already occurred when Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania left China’s multilateral platform for Central and Eastern European countries, formally known as the “17+1.”

In comparison, Ma Xiaolin was more optimistic about the future of Sino-Italian relations and the BRI. Indeed, he stated that:

“Bilateral cooperation between China and Italy may simply take on a different form, and it will not impede the cooperation between the two countries at both the central and local government levels, as well as among enterprises, based on the existing bilateral framework. It is unlikely to lead to a domino effect with other countries following suit.” [12]

Cui Hongjian made a somewhat different assessment. He posited that the BRI is an integral part of Sino-Italian relations, which, therefore, are unlikely to “remain intact” after Italy’s exit. However, like Ma, he also stated that:

“[Italy’s exit] will not have a substantial impact on the Belt and Road." [13]

To summarize, the BRI is likely going to continue to be Beijing’s most cherished instrument in multilateral diplomacy, though its form might change over time. The Italian government’s intent of leaving it was addressed by Chinese officials as the unfortunate result of the changing international situation and, only partly, Italian domestic politics. Yet, it is not a catastrophe either for China or, maybe, Sino-Italian relations. Moreover, assuming that there is a certain correlation between Beijing’s diplomatic priorities and the debate in Chinese media, China’s decision to avoid harsh reactions can also be attributed to the fact that Italy is not particularly central to Chinese foreign policy.

Source: ITC Trade Map.
Source: ITC Trade Map.
Source: PRC Ministry of Finance.

Italy Discusses Withdrawing from the BRI: A Needed Balancing Act?

Both Tajani’s visit to Beijing and the China-related proceedings at the G20 Summit garnered significant attention from the Italian media. According to government sources cited by Il Foglio, Rome and Beijing have already come to an agreement via informal channels that Italy will leave the BRI in September and that China will refrain from retaliating. [14] Nevertheless, there remains debate among Italian analysts whether China really will not strike back and on the underlying motivations behind the Meloni government’s decision. One’s stance towards the United States and Transatlantic ties emerged as a key variable influencing how commentators tackled answering these questions.

On the one hand, strongly Atlanticist news outlets Formiche and il Foglio described China as being in a difficult economic situation and, thus, not interested in provoking the West and European Union, seen as unified and prepared to oppose China. [15]

On the other hand, as expressed by Guido Santevecchi and Marco Galluzzo of Corriere della Sera, Gianluca Modolo of la Repubblica and Lorenzo Lamperti of il manifesto, many still harbor concerns regarding the possibility of economic retaliation if Beijing perceives a “loss of face.” [16] Additionally, these journalists see it as Rome’s responsibility to avoid economic retaliation by treading lightly on the BRI. Therefore, they viewed Tajani’s trip as a “balancing act” aimed at both laying the groundwork for a “soft” exit from the BRI and avoiding backlash from the world’s second-largest economy. [17]

The aforementioned journalists highlighted several aspects of the approach adopted by Tajani and Meloni to assuage Beijing. The first is that Meloni has adopted a more cautious and conciliatory tone regarding China. For Lamperti, the Premier has dialed down “the bellicosity of the electoral campaign, with its jabs regarding Taiwan and Tibet” and instead began repeatedly expressing her desire for strong, positive, and even strengthened ties with Beijing regardless of the BRI. [18]

Second, renewed significance was given to the Italy-China comprehensive strategic partnership. According to Modolo, “focusing on this mechanism is a way to try to soften the non-renewal of the BRI.” [19] Tajani has even recently defined this 20-year-old agreement as “more important than the Belt and Road,” while Meloni has portrayed it as “the beacon guiding the advancement of friendship and collaboration between the two nations in every area of mutual interest.”

Third, Tajani and Meloni have underscored that the final decision on the BRI rests with the Italian Parliament. The choice to request a parliamentary mandate to leave the BRI has been interpreted by these journalists as a way to distribute responsibility to the legislature and portray the decision as the simple outcome of democratic processes. [20]

These journalists also anticipated that Meloni herself will go to Beijing immediately after the parliamentary vote to personally convey the news of Italy’s withdrawal to Xi Jinping and demonstrate her commitment to revitalizing Sino-Italian relations beyond the BRI framework. [21] If all else fails, Italian President Sergio Mattarella is expected to visit Beijing in January 2024 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Marco Polo’s death. Lamperti believes that President Mattarella is the “most appreciated Italian political personality in China” and “could serve the role of arch guarantor of Sino-Italian relations.” [22]

As to why Italy is about to leave the BRI, for the majority of Italian commentators, the issue is mostly economic in nature. For example, Corriere’s Santevecchi stated:

“it is evident that the BRI has not brought tangible benefits to our economy”

Valerio Valentini, in Il Foglio, goes further, asserting that: “this regrettable memorandum… [has] contributed to tilting the scales in Beijing’s favor [and] exacerbating the trade imbalance that had previously been gradually correcting itself.” [23] Gabriele Carrer for Formiche defined the BRI as “both a political boomerang and a commercial flop” and stated that exiting it will result in a political victory for Meloni as it will allow her to claim “to have succeeded in prompting China to increase what it is willing to put on the table to maintain its relationship with Italy.” [24]

However, others argued that trade is not the main issue. In an interview for Formiche, LSE Professor Lorenzo Codogno stated that the connection drawn between the BRI and Italy’s trade deficit with China is “misleading.” [25] For Codogno:

“in general, Italy’s import-export trends with China have not been significantly influenced by the BRI but rather by cyclical and structural phenomena in the global economy. Furthermore, unless exiting the BRI leads to regulatory changes or retaliatory measures, trade flow trends will continue to be deeply rooted and influenced by fundamental factors.”

A somewhat similar point was made by Salvatore Cannavò, the vice-director of il Fatto Quotidiano. This newspaper is widely perceived as aligned with the Five-Star Movement (M5S) and its leader, former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who were the main proponents of Italy’s participation in the Belt and Road. Cannavò suggested that evaluating the economic results of the BRI is “more complex” considering how the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s economic slowdown prevented the full realization of the MoU. [26] He also pointed out that France’s trade balance with China is similarly unfavorable, while Germany’s situation is deteriorating rapidly. Additionally, Italian exports to China are currently thriving, growing at a rate that far outpaces German exports. Hence, Cannavò posited that Meloni’s decision to withdraw Italy from the BRI is primarily driven by the fact that “reassurances to the United States needed to be given, and an excuse to go after M5S needs to be found.” Analyst Michelangelo Cocco in Domani shared the view that pleasing Washington is the main reason behind the Meloni government’s stance on the BRI. [27]

Conversely, Il Foglio’s Asia correspondent Giulia Pompili, an ardent critic of Chinese influence in Italy, asserted that Rome's decision to leave the BRI is neither “because America is asking for it,” nor because of the trade balance issue. [28] Rather:

“international conditions and China's assertive and aggressive stance, [which is] aligned with dictatorships, have made [the BRI] a problem.” [29]

On this note, Pompili has penned a series of articles for il Foglio attacking "those in Italy who continue to weave relations [with China] in lesser-known fields, promoting a model that starkly differs from our own," in particular universities and local administrations. [30] These strong words are indicative of the Italian media debate’s increasing polarization.

All in all, it is evident that the Meloni government’s decision to leave the BRI is perceived as far more salient in Italy than in China. Unlike the relatively unified Chinese media discourse, the Italian debate presents significant concerns regarding potential economic consequences. Yet, similarly to what Chinese commentators have stated, the perspectives of their Italian counterparts towards the United States emerged as a critical variable in how individual analysts interpreted the current situation and its possible evolution. This underscores the contentious nature of the Italian debate and the challenge of accurately identifying Italy's past and present goals with respect to its China policy.


The analysis presented above showed the similarities and the differences in the Italian and Chinese media debate on Italy’s potential withdrawal from the BRI, a key foreign policy event for both countries. Several important observations can be made when examining and comparing the perspectives expressed in both Italian and Chinese press.

Firstly, Italy’s likely decision to leave the BRI has generated far more concern and attention in the Italian press compared to the relatively limited coverage in Chinese media. Although we could not include them all, the quantity of articles dedicated to discussing the issue in Italian media far surpasses that in Chinese media. This reflects the perceived asymmetry in the economic and diplomatic relations between a middle power – Italy – and a rising great power – China.

Secondly, regarding Rome's motivations, it is unsurprising that the commentators in the two countries assessed the situation differently. The Chinese decisively dismissed trade-related concerns and attributed Italy’s decision to being misguided by either Washington or its politicians. In contrast, Italian analysts and journalists took economic matters much more seriously, though there was no consensus on this issue. In general, it is evident that the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States is a critical factor in the current and future development of Sino-Italian relations.

Lastly, commentators on both sides expressed different degrees of confidence on whether Sino-Italian relations will continue without major disruptions. The future of these relations is likely to hinge on the actions and decisions of the Italian government in the coming months. The evolving dynamics in this relationship will be closely watched as they unfold by the press of both countries, as well as by us at ChinaMed.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

[1] Yidali fangfeng huo tuichu “Yidayilu“ changyi, beihou cangzhe shenme 意大利放风或退出“一带一路”倡议,背后藏着什么? [What is hidden behind Italy's dilemma of continuing or withdrawing from the "Belt and Road" initiative?], Tianmu News, August 4, 2023, link.

[2] Wang Hui and Zhang Jingjuan, Xuyue haishi tuichu “Yidayilu“, Yidali weihe juqing-buding? 续约还是退出“一带一路”,意大利为何举棋不定?[To renew it or to pull out from it, why Italy is hesitating on the BRI?], The Observer, September 6, 2023, link.

[3] Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto called his country’s accession to BRI “improvised and atrocious.” See: Don't let quitting BRI become Italy's regret: Global Times editorial, Global Times, August 1, 2023, link.

[4] Liu Zhiqin, LiuZhi qin: Meiguo shi wannong “Teluoyi muma” de hangjia lishou – yu Ding Gang laoshi shangque 刘志勤:美国是玩弄“特洛伊木马”的行家里手 – 与丁刚老师商榷 [Liu Zhiqin: The United States is an expert at playing with “Trojan horses" – in discussion with teacher Ding Gang], Renmin University of China, August 1, 2023, link.

[5] Wang and Zhang, To renew it or to pull out from it, why Italy is hesitating on the BRI?

[6] The Future of the EU and its Strategic Autonomy by CICIR Analyst Zhang Jian, Sinification, March 1, 2023, link.

[7] Yidali fangfeng yao tuichu “Yi Dai Yi Lu”? Beihou you zhexie yuanyin 意大利放风要退出"一带一路"?背后或有这些原因 [Is Italy preparing to withdraw from the BRI? These may be the reasons behind it.], Renmin University of China, September 12, 2023, link.

[8] Yidali fangfeng huo tuichu “Yidayilu“ changyi, beihou cangzhe shenme 意大利放风或退出“一带一路”倡议,背后藏着什么? [What is hidden behind Italy's dilemma of continuing or withdrawing from the "Belt and Road" initiative?], Tianmu News, August 4, 2023, link.

[9] Italy FM’s upcoming China visit shows willingness to cooperate despite noise discrediting BRI: expert, Global Times, September 2, 2023, link.

[10] Li Qiang huijian Yidali Zongli Meiluoni 李强会见意大利总理梅洛尼 [Li Qiang meets Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni], Xinhua, September 9, 2023, link.

[11] Sun Liping: Da chaijie beijing xia, bu tong guojia miandui de wenti shi bu yiyangde孙立平:大拆解背景下,不同国家面对的问题是不一样的 [With a major decoupling in the background, countries are facing different problems],, July 7, 2023, link.

[12] Yidali fangfeng huo tuichu “Yidayilu“ changyi, beihou cangzhe shenme 意大利放风或退出“一带一路”倡议,背后藏着什么? [What is hidden behind Italy's dilemma of continuing or withdrawing from the "Belt and Road" initiative?], Xinchaowen, August 4, 2023, link.

[13] Wang and Zhang, To renew it or to pull out from it, why Italy is hesitating on the BRI?

[14] Claudio Cerasa, Ecco il piano del governo per un reset con la Cina [Here is the government’s plan to reset relations with China], Il Foglio, August 1, 2023, link; Giulia Pompili, Meloni, la Via della seta e una domanda: quando andrà a dirglielo a Xi? [Meloni, the BRI, and a question: when will she go to tell it to Xi?], Il Foglio, September 4, 2023, link.

[15] Gabriele Carrer, Italia-Cina. No alla Via della Seta, sì al partenariato strategico [Italy-China. No to the Belt and Road, yes to the strategic partnership], Formiche, September 4, 2023, link; Un'ordinata uscita dalla Via della seta. Il bilaterale al G20, Il Foglio, September 9, 2023, link.

[16] Guido Santevecchi, Così Tajani oggi a Pechino prepara il terreno per l’uscita dell’Italia dalla Via della Seta (senza contraccolpi) [Tajani goes to Beijing to prepare Italy's exit from the BRI (and avoid any backlash)], Corriere della Sera, September 4, 2023, link; Marco Galluzzo, G20 in India, faccia a faccia tra Giorgia Meloni e il primo ministro cinese: usciremo dalla Via della Seta? [G20 in India, face-to-face meeting between Giorgia Meloni and the Chinese Prime Minister: Will we exit the BRI?], Corriere della Sera, September 10, 2023, link; Gianluca Modolo, Tajani in Cina per riequilibrare la bilancia commerciale e preparare l’uscita soft dell’Italia dalla Via della Seta [Tajani goes to China to rebalance trade relations], la Repubblica, September 3, 2023, link; Lorenzo Lamperti, Tajani a Pechino per evitare ritorsioni dopo l’uscita dalla Via della Seta [Tajani in Beijing to avoid retaliation after exiting the BRI], il manifesto, September 3, 2023, link; Lorenzo Lamperti, «Rafforzare le relazioni». L’equilibrismo di Tajani a Pechino [“Strengthen relations”. Tajani’s balancing act in Beijing], il manifesto, September 5, 2023, link.

[17] Modolo, Tajani goes to Beijing to prepare Italy's exit from the BRI (and avoid any backlash)

[18] Lamperti, Tajani in Beijing to avoid retaliation after exiting the BRI.

[19] Modolo, Tajani goes to Beijing to prepare Italy's exit from the Belt and Road Initiative (and avoid any backlash)

[20] Lamperti, Tajani in Beijing to avoid retaliation after exiting the BRI; [22] Marco Galluzzo, Via della Seta, Meloni spiegherà così al premier cinese l’addio al Memorandum, attraverso il Parlamento [Belt and Road: Meloni will explain the farewell to the Memorandum to the Chinese Premier through Parliament], Corriere della Sera, September 8, 2023, link.

[21] Lamperti, “Strengthen relations”. Tajani’s balancing act in Beijing.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Santevecchi, Tajani goes to Beijing to prepare Italy's exit from the BRI (and avoid any backlash); Valerio Valentini, Ministro degli Esteri, ma pure di Confindustria: Tajani è costretto all'equilibrismo [Minister of Foreign Affairs, but also of Confindustria: Tajani is forced to undertake a balancing act], Il Foglio, September 4, 2023, link.

[24] Gabriele Carrer, Conte non si pente della Via della Seta e prepara il dibattito in Aula [Conte does not regret the Belt and Road and prepares for the debate in Parliament], Formiche, September 4, 2023, link; Gabriele Carrer, Italia-Cina. Meloni 1, Conte 0 [Italy-China. Meloni 1, Conte 0], Formiche, September 5, 2023, link.

[25] Gabriele Carrer, Via della Seta o no, difficile riequilibrare la bilancia con la Cina. Parla Codogno (Lse) [BRI or no, it will be difficult to rebalance the scale with China. Codogno (LSE) speaks], Formiche, September 3, 2023, link.

[26] Salvatore Cannavò, Fuori dalla via della Seta. Ma la Cina resta un affare [Out of the Belt and Road. But China remains a good deal], il Fatto Quotidiano, September 5, 2023, link.

[27] Michelangelo Cocco, L’uscita dalla via della Seta è un salto nel buio [The withdrawal from the BRI is a leap in the unknown], Domani, September 10, 2023, link.

[28] Giulia Pompili, Così la Via della seta in Italia passa direttamente dai comuni [This way, the BRI in Italy goes directly through the municipalities], Il Foglio, September 6, 2023, link.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Pompili, This way, the BRI in Italy goes directly through the municipalities; Giulia Pompili, Tajani a Pechino parlerà di diritti umani come fa la Sapienza? [Tajani in Beijing will talk about human rights as they do in Sapienza?], Il Foglio, September 4, 2023, link.

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Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
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