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Italian PM: Strong partnership with China more important than BRI

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Biden welcomes Italy's Prime Minister Meloni at the White House

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Sunday there was more to Italy's relationship with China than the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), adding that a final decision on whether to leave the BRI was still to be taken.

Italian media reported earlier in the day that Italy would quit the BRI and instead seek to revitalise a strategic partnership agreement with China, aimed at fostering economic cooperation, that it first signed in 2004.

Italy is the only G7 nation to sign up to the BRI, a global trade and infrastructure plan modelled on the old Silk Road that linked imperial China and the West.

Italy has the G7 presidency next year and recasting its relationship with Beijing would placate its Western allies, who are fearful of Chinese influence, while reducing the risk of a backlash from Beijing.

"There are European nations which in recent years haven't been part of the Belt and Road but have been able to forge more favourable relations (with China) than we have sometimes managed," Meloni told a press conference at the end of the G20 summit of the world's major economies in New Delhi.

Meloni met Chinese Premier Li Qiang on Saturday on the G20 sidelines and described the talks as polite and constructive.

"The issue is how to guarantee a partnership that is beneficial for both sides, leaving aside the decision that we will take on the BRI," she added.

China has always believed that further tapping into potential cooperation under the BRI is in the interests of countries, said Mao Ning, a spokesperson at the Chinese foreign ministry, when asked on Monday at a regular news conference about Italy's deliberations.

Italy has repeatedly stressed that any exit would not mean its relationship with China would depreciate. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who recently visited China, said a strategic partnership would be more valuable than the BRI.

So far, China has not publicly pushed Italy to stay, choosing instead to focus on their bilateral ties.

"We believe China and Italy should further deepen practical cooperation in various fields and promote greater development of their comprehensive strategic partnership," Mao told reporters.

Meloni said the Chinese had renewed an invitation for her to visit Beijing but that no date had been set.

The Italian government has also been invited to a BRI Forum that China will host in October, she added.

Italian politicians have questioned the value of the BRI agreement signed by a previous administration in 2019.

In its statement on Saturday, Meloni's office mentioned the 20th anniversary next year of a separate Global Strategic Partnership signed by China and a government led by Silvio Berlusconi in 2004.

(Reporting by Keith Weir and Giuseppe Fonte; Additional reporting by Liz Lee in Beijing; editing by Mark Heinrich and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)