Italy is the first G7 country to sign up to the scheme, in a move that has caused upset in Washington and Brussels.

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Rome, endorsing the global infrastructure-building scheme.

As with previous MoUs, Saturday's accords were wide-ranging, covering cooperation in the banking sector, a partnership between a Chinese construction company and Italian ports and the export of fruit from the Mediterranean country to China

The agreements also hinted at collaboration between media outlets, as well as in the spheres of science and technology, and promised the return of hundreds of Chinese cultural objects currently in Italy. 

Di Maio, right, and Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan sign some of the 29 accords
Di Maio, right, and Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan sign some of the 29 accords © Yara Nardi/Reuters

Announced in 2013 as an ambitious plan to build a "belt" of overland corridors and a "road" of maritime shipping lanes spanning Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, the BRI has evolved to encompass other regions as well as digital infrastructure and even cultural exchanges.


Italy's decision to defy the recent backlash and join the BRI comes at a time when the potential to boost Italian exports to China and pump money into crumbling Italian infrastructure is an especially alluring proposition. 

Italy has an onerous public debt and it fell into recession at the end of last year. 

"Italy needs investment and resources and China has those to provide," said Erik Jones, professor of European studies and international political economy at Johns Hopkins University's Bologna-based School of Advanced International Studies.

"Italy also needs to underpin and strengthen its business ties with China [and] this agreement will help there," he said. 


Some analysts also see Italy's embrace of the BRI as a symbolic gesture of independence ahead of the European Parliament elections this May. 

"This agreement is something the government can hold up as an accomplishment," said Jones. "That is particularly relevant for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who tends to have to mediate between the coalition partners more than he is able to take credit for new initiatives."

But joining the BRI could further exacerbate tensions between the two main parties in Italy's coalition government.