Meloni meets Biden as Italy poised for big decision on China

Andrew Hammond

Giorgia Meloni last week made her first visit to the White House as Italian prime minister. Although the Ukraine war shows no sign of relenting, it was China that topped the agenda of her meeting with President Joe Biden. While Rome is not always seen as being among the top-tier global powers, the reason why the Meloni-Biden relationship could have significant implications is Italy’s systemic importance in Europe and the wider West. It is not only a key G7 country, but it will also hold the chair of this club of Western powers next year, when the conflict in Ukraine could still be underway.
Seismic shock waves were sent out across the Western world when Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, became the first (and so far only) member of the G7 to sign up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2019, under the administration of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. This provoked a strong rebuke from the Trump administration, with Garrett Marquis, the US National Security Council spokesman at the time, asserting that there is “no need for the Italian government to lend legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project.” America’s concern about the more than €1 trillion ($1.1 trillion) BRI plan stems from its immensely ambitious nature, which lies at the center of a geopolitical struggle between Beijing and Washington. China has big plans to boost trade and stimulate economic growth across Asia, Africa and beyond by building massive amounts of infrastructure and connecting it to countries around the globe.
While the Trump team was vexed with Italy over the BRI, concern about China’s influence in Europe is bipartisan in Washington, given the concerns of many Democrats about growing Chinese international influence. This was underlined during the Obama administration, when US officials raised concerns about the degree to which the UK was at that time perceived to be cozying up to Beijing under the government of David Cameron. However, it is not just Washington that is concerned by Italy’s involvement in the BRI, but also Brussels. EU officials are increasingly conscious of China’s influence across the continent, with a growing number of EU states having signed memorandums of understanding on this, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Malta and Portugal.
Like Washington, Brussels has reservations about the BRI, not least given its wider frustrations over Beijing’s perceived slowness in opening up its own economy and a wave of Chinese takeovers of European firms in key industries. EU officials also have concerns over Beijing’s 16+1 initiative with key countries in Eastern and Central Europe. However, Meloni, who came to power last October, is giving signals that an Italian U-turn on the BRI may be underway, including acknowledging that there “are ongoing evaluations … the issue must be handled carefully and respectfully, also involving the parliament.” The agreement that Rome inked in 2019 will be renewed automatically for five years in March 2024 if neither side withdraws by giving three months’ notice. Meloni has claimed that Biden has never challenged her on the issue of Italy’s participation in the BRI. However, the White House would, without question, welcome a reversal from Rome.
The rationale for U-turning on this issue is not just related to Western security. In addition, there is so far little evidence that Italy has benefited economically from the deal.
Over the last four years, Italian exports to China have risen to about €16.4 billion from a baseline of €13 billion. However, Italy’s overall trade deficit with China has increased. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said any Italian withdrawal from the BRI would be a short-sighted decision. He last week asserted that, “despite Italy’s repeated claim that the development of ties won’t be thwarted without BRI, announcing (Meloni’s) decision in the United States will be seen as a clear signal that Italy is leaning closer to Washington.” Chinese Ambassador to Italy Jia Guide echoed these warnings from Beijing. He said that, if Italy chooses to withdraw from the BRI – a platform that he asserts demonstrates mutual political trust and strategic cooperation with China – it would have a negative impact on the country’s image and credibility.
So, it was this big forthcoming decision for Italy that shaped the Biden-Meloni meeting. In a related vein, the two leaders discussed the Ukraine war and Italy’s emerging preparations for the G7 in 2024, which is also a big US election year. Meloni has already declared that a priority will be “working on the reconstruction of Ukraine as a way to bet on a future of peace, freedom and Euro-Atlantic prosperity for this nation.” While Biden and Meloni do not see eye to eye on every issue, he is delighted by her apparently steadfast support not just for Ukraine, but also NATO too, despite significant unease within the Italian populace about the war. The US president is also aware that, within Italy, anti-establishment political parties like The League – which forms part of the government coalition – had, prior to the Ukraine conflict, sought a reevaluation of Rome’s relationship with Moscow, including calling for the lifting of pre-2022 EU sanctions. Meloni also discussed Africa with Biden, which will be another key feature of the Italian G7 presidency. She argues that more help for nations such as Tunisia is needed to prevent migrants from making perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
Taken overall, Thursday’s meeting could be the first signal of a strengthened Italian-US relationship. While the two nations have long been allies, any withdrawal from the BRI by Italy would be broadly welcomed in Washington, across both sides of the political aisle.