Transatlantic Take

China’s Charm Offensive Meets Italy’s Euro-Atlantic Resilience

5 min read
Photo Credit: Arsenie Krasnevsky / Shutterstock
This analysis is produced in the framework of the IAI-GMF Fellowship on Italian foreign and defence policy. 

This analysis is produced in the framework of the IAI-GMF Fellowship on Italian foreign and defence policy. 

In March 2019, Italy’s decision to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) triggered several heated reactions from Italy’s partners, in Europe as well as on the other side of the Atlantic.  One year later, Chinese vehement charm offensive toward the country in the midst of the coronavirus crisis also raised further concerns about a potential shift in Italian foreign policy.

This would have been an important year for Italian-Chinese relations in any case as it marks the 50th anniversary since the establishment of formal diplomatic ties. The current situation presents some elements of déjà vu. The process that brought Italy to recognize the People’s Republic of China triggered some criticisms from U.S. President Richard Nixon. A similar tension exists these days as well.

In recent years, Italy’s approach toward China has hardly been the product of a coherent, unified vision, but rather a non-linear collection of choices and decisions based on several idealized and stereotypical visions: China as the new market El Dorado for Italian exporters; China as the emerging, future dominant actor in world politics worth bandwagonning with; China recognizing Italy’s crucial economic and civilization role by connecting the land and maritime BRI in Venice, Marco Polo’s city; and much more. Even Italy’s BRI adhesion was anything but coherent: the country has also endorsed Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, a BRI competitor, playing its classic diplomatic waltz, this time in Asia.

However, while Italy’s choices on China might be inconsistent, public opinion has instead displayed a more consistent attitude, as the popularity of China has been on the rise for a while. A recent report by the Institute of International Affairs and the University of Siena shows that China is now considered Italy’s most important foreign friend. China’s charm offensive in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, accompanied by some open propaganda, has had an impact, particularly while Germany, France, and other EU countries blocked the export of protective medical gear and ignored Italy’s request for help in the early stage of the crisis.  

There has been an unintended consequence for Beijing, as political actors that historically have a more nuanced and cautious approach toward China started becoming more critical.

However, there has also been an unintended consequence for Beijing, as political actors that historically have a more nuanced and cautious approach toward China started becoming more critical. For example, Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini, said in an interview aimed a U.S. audience that, while Italy is “grateful to everyone for the aid,” this does not imply any strategic shift as “the pillars of our Euro-Atlantic position…do not change.” EU Affairs Minister, Enzo Amendola, has said that the current government would not have signed on to the BRI as its predecessor did, and he has stressed the need for a thorough inquiry into the responsibilities of China and the World Health Organization for the coronavirus pandemic.

It is notable that Amendola said this to the Hindustan Times, while envisaging greater post-pandemic cooperation between Italy, Europe, and India. This was a clear, geopolitical message when China and India are locked in a tense military face-off. Italy is thus ready to align itself openly with India, and push the EU to do so, to counterbalance China.

Guerini and Amendola are the most important Euro-Atlantic voices in the government. Amendola is the architect of Italy’s rapprochement with France. Guerini’s decisions—confirming the F35 program and Italy’s expansive role in international missions—have strengthened the bond with the United States. Guerini was also the first major Italian politician to question China’s place in Italy’s 5G plans. It was no accident that one of the first decisions of the government was to launch the Golden Powers decree to protect strategic sectors of the economy. The two ministers’ role has been essential in rebalancing Italy’s foreign policy under the new government.

The Five Star Movements (M5S), which is the major partner in the governing coalition, is the most pro-China party in Italy, but even its views are becoming more diverse.  The ongoing problems in Hong Kong have been the catalyst for this. The M5S chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Vito Petrocelli, has said that China has the right to do whatever it takes to maintain order domestically, even striking a parallel between Hong Kong and Minneapolis. However, Marta Grande, the M5S chair of the Chamber Foreign Affairs Committee, has criticized China and asked Beijing to respect the “one country, two systems” principle.

Against this background of a growing internal party debate, the evolution of the M5S Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio’s position is worth watching. He is considered the architect of Italy’s BRI adhesion, and in November 2019 he announced Italy’s “non-interference” approach on Hong Kong. However, speaking at the videoconference of EU ministers of foreign affairs on May 29, Di Maio was vocal as never before, saying that Italy wants to preserve “Hong Kong’s stability, prosperity, autonomy and its system of freedom and fundamental rights.” These words came after he had praised China’s help in the coronavirus crisis. Di Maio wanted to take credit for this help, showing the public that his approach was paying off, as he linked it to his China policy. His approach remains slightly wavering, but there has been a partial shift to a less accommodating view of China.

The more vocal stance on China by political actors such as Guerini and Amendola—and an emerging diversification of the positions on China inside the M5S —despite public opinion being more and more sympathetic to Beijing shows that Italy’s Euro-Atlantic feelings remain robust. They maybe not always be loud or popular, but they are still essential in shaping the country’s foreign policy.