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Italy considers leaving China's program to open global road and shipping routes


Italy appears to be rethinking its embrace of a vast Chinese infrastructure program to open global road and shipping routes. Established in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative seeks to grow Beijing's economic and political power globally. More than 150 countries have joined the initiative, and that includes Italy. But now the country's defense minister is calling the initiative, quote, "wicked." He says the previous government's decision to join was atrocious because China delivered more exports to Italy than Italy was able to send to China. Giulio Pugliese is a lecturer at Oxford University and a part-time professor at the European University Institute, and he joins us from Rome. Good morning.

GIULIO PUGLIESE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So let's start with why Italy's rethinking this. Where did its agreement to join the Belt and Road Initiative go wrong?

PUGLIESE: The coalition, the populist coalition government of 2019 decided that in order to showcase results to the local electorate, it had to engage also into populist foreign policy and to a degree of political marketing. So Italy's embrace of the Belt and Road Initiative was really a way to showcase that away from the shackles of the European Union and the impositions by Brussels, Italy, a G-7 country, could go it alone and do a deal with Xi Jinping's signature initiative. The problem is that while Italy expected to gain the reap - the best of both worlds with an engagement of China and potentially also political marketing back home, then there was heavy pressure from the United States. And then, as we know, there was also a degree of bad luck because of COVID-19, U.S.-China competition gaining ground and China also engaging in more heavy-handed diplomacy. And that fed into a rethink not just in Italy but in all Western capitals about their relationship - in fact, our relationship - with China.

FADEL: Now, Italy is the only G-7 nation to join this initiative. You mentioned U.S. pressure. How much did US pressure contribute to the rethinking?

PUGLIESE: I think it was fundamental already at the time of the very signature because the memorandum was hollowed out, so much so that Italy, the Italian government, including the very populist government, became quite shy then in approaching Beijing to realize some of the provisions of this Italy-China engagement. And so in the process, Italy didn't get the best of both worlds but the worst of both worlds. It angered the United States, and, actually, it frustrated China - was expecting to drive a wedge between trans-Atlantic allies but also to potentially build up on Italy-China relations, which did not really happen already in 2019 and 2020.

FADEL: So what happens now? How does the Italian government untangle itself here?

PUGLIESE: It's a tricky question because it is very possible that there will be informal - or embargoes by China because it will amount to making Xi lose face. This is Xi Jinping's big project. And so the trick will be to perhaps negotiate another document that does not specify the Belt and Road Initiative or potentially to coordinate with like-minded partners, such as the G-7 partners, countermeasures to ameliorate and to potentially salvage the Italian - and to buffer the Italian economy from potential Chinese retaliation.

FADEL: OK. Thank you so much. Giulio Pugliese teaches at Oxford University and the European University Institute. We appreciate your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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