Italy calls for review of China’s Belt & Road Initiative

Just before the pandemic began, China had found a very close friend in the form of then Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. China considered him as their entry gate into the European Union. The friendship became so close that Conte ditched the traditional pro-Western Italian foreign policy and joined China’s Belt & Road Initiative, which is infamous globally as the ‘Chinese debt trap’.

Under Conte, the Chinese influence in Italy was expanding so briskly that as of 2020, more than 400 Chinese businesses held stakes in 760 Italian companies in highly strategic sectors. In fact, China’s penetration into Italy had begun much earlier. Taking advantage of the debt that had left the Italian economy crippled, China pumped €15.9 billion into this nation between 2000 and 2019.

The public sentiment began to change when the pandemic struck. In the early days, after Wuhan, Italy was the place most hit by the virus. Then, there were more than 300,000 Chinese working in Italy. They had almost captured Italy’s fashion industry. Also, direct flights were operating between Wuhan and Italy. With China having used its Lunar Festival to send the virus globally, the Italians were convinced that the pandemic was brought along by the Chinese working in their country.

On one side, the anger against China was rising, and on the other, in February 2021, Mario Draghi became the Prime Minister of Italy. On assuming office, he first signed a decree which stopped Shenzhen Investment Holdings, a partially state-owned Chinese company, from buying a 70% stake in LPE, a privately held Italian semiconductor maker.

Recently, Italy has begun scrutinizing Chinese investments strictly. Moreover, after the G7 Summit, Prime Minister Draghi has also called for a review of Italy’s participation in the Chinese BRI project and termed China an ‘autocracy’. Mario Draghi appears to reverse his predecessor, Giuseppe Conte’s pro-China policy under which Italy became the only G7 nation to join the BRI and suffered severely during the pandemic.