At the last G20 summit in India, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni informed the Chinese leadership that her country would be leaving the Belt and Road Initiative with China by the end of the year. “It is an awful project. We exported some oranges to China, and they expanded their exports to Italy 3 times in just 3 years,” stated a minister in Giorgia Meloni’s government.
Italy was the only member of the G7 group of the most economically developed Western countries when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a populist from the Five Star Movement, included it in the Chinese imperial Belt and Road Initiative 4 years ago, supposedly to challenge the West. But as it turned out, that agreement did Italy more harm than good.
Serbia should closely monitor how Italy acts in this situation. Germany and Italy have historically been our 2 largest trading partners. Italy is also one of the largest investors in Serbia. Italian companies employ more than 50,000 workers in Serbia, while thousands of people from Serbia work and study in Italy. There are numerous reasons to follow such a partner with whom we still have strong cultural and historical links if they leave a project in which Serbia is also involved.
To begin with, let’s first determine how much the Chinese Belt and Road project actually benefits us and, more significantly, whether it causes us harm. Similar to what the Italians did before deciding to leave.
China and participants in its strategic project will convene at a summit in Beijing this month after a pause of four years. High dignitaries from about 90 different countries will attend. Beijing has been particularly excited about it as this year’s conference would mark 10 years since President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative as a plan to increase China’s influence. The hosts will use this platform to honour their leader, whose persona they used to build a cult.
However, this pretentious and pompous celebration will actually represent a swan song of a venture that has dominated China’s political and economic agenda over the past 10 years. Beijing is also ignoring its own child, not just Italy. It puts a new global endeavour, or, more precisely, 3 new concepts, on its feet, with the same goal of expanding China’s economic, political, and now openly – security influence.
China has not benefited from the Belt and Road Initiative. About a thousand billion dollars have been invested in the projects, but too many will not return the investment. This was a cruel and exploitative endeavour. Beijing estimated that after gaining economic dominance, it would either make money or bind numerous debtor countries, over which it would then establish any other sort of control. The majority are among the developing economies of Asia and Africa, where significant infrastructure facilities, roads, ports and railways could not bring profit, and the hosts could not pay back their debt, leaving China with “dead” assets.
When making calculations, Serbia should not look far into the African and Asian ruins of the Belt and Road because one of them is nearby, in our neighbourhood, in Montenegro. Montenegro is currently seeking assistance from European banks to exit the unfavourable business due to its heavy debt for the highway construction from Bar to Serbia.
Perhaps this is even closer. The joint Serbian-Hungarian high-speed railway project between Belgrade and Budapest is in crisis. It has been blocked on the Hungarian side due to a lack of funding and the inability of Chinese construction workers to meet EU regulations. Stopping the work from which Serbia anticipated to make a significant leap towards joining the European transportation corridors represents the final warning signal.
The European group of participants in the Belt and Road, which includes Serbia, is becoming smaller. Lithuania has already left the project, and the Czech Republic, whose new president, Peter Pavel, supports the initiative to withdraw, is also on its way out. Eastern Europeans, also members of the EU and NATO, do not see the advantages of participating in the Chinese project.
They naturally take the side of Europe, to which they belong, and join in the defence of European interests against Beijing’s aggressive policy in the increasingly tense economic and political relations between the EU and China. The Belt and Road initiative’s future in Eastern Europe has been decided. This project has no future in our region, not only because China is leaving it but also because the most significant partnerships – within the EU – no longer allow it.
Serbia has witnessed a significant increase in trade with China in recent years (almost $6 billion). The signing of a free trade agreement is also expected. Several Chinese investments (Železara Smederevo and Bor) were significant for the Serbian economy. But these and similar deals would happen without Serbia’s Belt and Road project membership. Similar to other European economies, including Italy.
Today, the Belt and Road is an empty shell, which Beijing abandoned and turned it into new and even more politically and security-intoned initiatives.
By leaving the Belt and Road project, Serbia would do a favour to itself. First, it would behave according to the actual situation because why be a part of something that does not actually exist? Second, Serbia would free itself from the obligation to make arrangements with China that go beyond its economic interest and turn into something more it does not need, primarily a political and security connection. Third, by exiting the Chinese project at its end, Serbia would send a convincing signal to its European partners that it understands their policy regarding China well and that it is clearly committed to a European, not a Chinese, view of global relations.
This is another historical crossroads where nations decide which way to go. Serbia does not have to recognise which path is correct, but it will not make a mistake if it follows the example of those who have been its most significant partners thus far and will be in the future.