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'China firmly opposes smearing, undermining...': Beijing on Italy's withdrawal from Belt and Road Initiative

Italy became the only major Western nation in 2019 to join the BRI, dismissing concerns that it would enable China to gain control of sensitive technologies and vital infrastructure. However, PM Giorgia Meloni contended that it brought no significant gains for Italy.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Beijing Published on: December 07, 2023 22:22 IST
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.
Image Source : AP/FILE Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.

China's foreign ministry on Thursday defended the controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) after Italy officially withdrew from the flagship Chinese infrastructural project, saying that it holds "enormous appeal and global influence". However, the Chinese response did not single out Italy for criticism.

"China firmly opposes smearing and undermining cooperation in developing the Belt and Road Initiative, and opposes confrontation and creating division among the camps," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin in a routine briefing on Thursday.

This came after Italy officially informed China that it is pulling out from the BRI, two government sources told Reuters on Wednesday, ending months of doubt over Rome's future in the ambitious project. Italy also apparently ignored concerns that the withdrawal could sour relations with Beijing and damage its own economy.

Italy in 2019 became the first and so far only major Western nation to join the programme, dismissing concerns from the United States that it would enable China to gain control of sensitive technologies and vital infrastructure.

"We have every intention of maintaining excellent relations with China even if we are no longer part of the Belt and Road Initiative," a second government source said. "Other G7 nations have closer relations with China than we do, despite the fact they were never in (the BRI)," he added.

Why did Italy pull out of BRI?

When Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni took office last year, she said she wanted to withdraw from the deal, which is modelled on the old Silk Road that linked China to the West, saying it had brought no significant gains to Italy.

"I think that we should... improve our cooperation with China on trade, the economy...The tool of the (BRI) ... has not produced the results that were expected," Meloni told reporters on Thursday.

The 2019 accord expires in March 2024 and would have been automatically renewed unless Rome gave at least three months' written warning that it was pulling out. A government source said Beijing had been given a letter "in recent days" informing the Chinese government that Italy would not be renewing the pact.

The controversy surrounding BRI

With the BRI, China has become a major financer of development projects on a par with the World Bank.  Xi’s initiative has built power plants, roads, railroads and ports around the world and deepened China’s ties with Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Mideast. However, the massive loans backing the projects have burdened poorer countries with heavy debts, in some cases leading to China taking control of those assets.

The Chinese government says the initiative has launched more than 3,000 projects and “galvanized” nearly $1 trillion in investment.

It has also attracted criticism from the US, India and others that China is engaging in “debt trap” diplomacy: Making loans Beijing knew governments would likely default on, enabling Chinese interests to take control of the assets. An oft-cited example is a port that the Sri Lankan government ended up leasing to a Chinese company for 99 years. Many economists say China did not make the bad loans intentionally.

(with inputs from Reuters)

ALSO READ | Italy ends months of doubt, officially quits China's ambitious Belt and Road initiative project

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