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UPDATE 4-Meloni: Italy can improve trade with China after Belt and Road departure

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Italy signed pact in 2019 expecting big boost to exports

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Hoped-for economic gains did not materialise

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Rome says still expects good relations with Beijing

(Releads with Italian PM comment)

By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

ROME, Dec 7 (Reuters) -

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Thursday that Italy can improve trade and economic ties with China even after Rome's decision to leave Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

"I think that we should... improve our cooperation with China on trade, the economy," Meloni told reporters in her first public comments on the issue since Italy informed China it was quitting the BRI.

"The tool of the (BRI) ... has not produced the results that were expected," she added.

Italy in 2019 became the first and so far only major Western nation to join the trade and investment programme, ignoring warnings from the United States that it might allow China to take control of sensitive technologies and vital infrastructure.

However, when Meloni took office last year, she said she wanted to withdraw from the deal, which was championed by President Xi Jinping.

The 2019 accord expires in March 2024 and an Italian government source said on Wednesday that Rome had sent Beijing a letter "in recent days" informing China that it would not be renewing.

China's foreign ministry said on Thursday that the BRI has "enormous appeal and global influence", without singling out Italy for criticism.

"China firmly opposes smearing that damages Belt and Road cooperation," foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters at a routine briefing.

NO TRADE BONANZA

A second Italian government source, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, noted that "other G7 nations have closer relations with China than we do, despite the fact they were never in (the BRI)."

Italy will assume the presidency of the G7 in 2024.

More than 100 countries have signed agreements with China to cooperate on BRI infrastructure and building projects since it was launched in 2013. The then Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hoped for a trade bonanza when he signed up in 2019, but Chinese firms were the main beneficiaries, data shows.

Italian exports to China totalled 16.4 billion euros ($17.7 billion) last year from 13 billion euros in 2019. By contrast, Chinese exports to Italy rose to 57.5 billion from 31.7 billion over the same period, Italian data showed.

Italy's main euro zone trading partners France and Germany exported significantly more to China last year, despite not being part of the BRI, which is modelled on the old Silk Road that linked China to the West.

Looking to maintain strategic ties, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani visited Beijing in September and President Sergio Mattarella is due to visit China next year.

Meloni herself has said she wants to go to Beijing, but no date has been fixed.

Successive governments in Rome signalled their doubts about the pact by vetoing some proposed takeovers or limiting the sway of Chinese companies over their Italian counterparts.

Meloni, who heads a conservative coalition, has been keen to burnish her credentials as a committed pro-NATO leader and a government source said that she had assured U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this year that Italy would leave the BRI.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, Crispian Balmer and Giuseppe Fonte; Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom and Laurie Chen in Beijing and Alvise Armellini in Rome; writing by Giulia Segreti and Crispian Balmer Editing by Keith Weir, Toby Chopra Barbara Lewis, Alexandra Hudson)

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