Italy’s 2019 flirtation with China on Belt and Road did not bear fruit

When Italy signed a memorandum of understanding supporting China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2019, then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had been in government for less than a year. The government coalition of the five-star populist movement and the right-wing League party didn’t seem to agree on what the memorandum was supposed to codify. Previously, Beijing had not held a prominent place in the country’s foreign policy, and discussions around China were limited.

As the protagonists of a dysfunctional coalition jostled each other, the debate over the memorandum and Italian interests in China only took place through their election platforms. For the Five Star Movement, China represented an opportunity to export products made in italy, while the League party insisted on the need to safeguard national interests.

When Italy signed a memorandum of understanding supporting China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2019, then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had been in government for less than a year. The government coalition of the five-star populist movement and the right-wing League party didn’t seem to agree on what the memorandum was supposed to codify. Previously, Beijing had not held a prominent place in the country’s foreign policy, and discussions around China were limited.

As the protagonists of a dysfunctional coalition jostled each other, the debate over the memorandum and Italian interests in China only took place through their election platforms. For the Five Star Movement, China represented an opportunity to export products made in italy, while the League party insisted on the need to safeguard national interests.

Before signing the agreement, warnings came on several fronts. both American and EU leaders warned Rome against signing a bilateral agreement with Beijing. Conte, on the other hand, was quick to reassure the public that the deal was purely commercial and that he favored Italian national interests.

Two governments and a prime minister later, Italy has learned the lesson.

The first Conte administration dreamed, like many governments and international companies, of China’s enormous market potential. Political considerations have not prevented the increase in trade with Beijing. Conte’s second cabinet, which ruled a coalition of the Populist and Friends of China Five-Star Movement with the Left-Atlanticist Democratic Party from September 2019 to January, adopted more conciliatory tones. Emphasizing both the role of the United States as Italy’s main strategic partner and China’s growing global footprint, the then prime minister envisioned a role for Rome and Brussels to act as than potential bridge between Washington and Beijing.

Since current Prime Minister Mario Draghi took office in February, Italy’s official speech on the US-China rivalry has emphasized a return to international alliances. At the start of his term, the new Prime Minister clarified that his administration is “strongly pro-European and Atlanticist, in line with Italy’s historical roots” and declared that he is worried on the growing number of conflicts involving China. Draghi’s incisive formulation leaves no room for misunderstanding: China’s political positions are worrying.

Besides a shift in perception at the highest levels of government, a more nuanced discussion about China is also taking place in parliament. Beijing’s escalating crackdown in Hong Kong and renewed global attention to human rights abuses in Xinjiang have sparked a debate in Italy, where members of the lower house are calling on the government to do more to push back China.

In July 2020, the Chamber of Deputies unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that the second Conte government coordinate with other European Union member states to preserve Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms. Likewise, in May, Italian deputies unanimously approved a inter-party resolution who strongly condemned the human rights violations in Xinjiang and insisted on the need for an independent investigation in the Northwest China’s Autonomous Region. On the EU: all Italian MEPs in the European Parliament voted in favor of resolution, following sanctions imposed by China on European parliamentarians and researchers, which officially froze discussions on the comprehensive EU-China investment agreement.

Make no mistake: the new atmosphere has not always been adopted by all Italian politicians. From the Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio parrot China’s mantra of non-interference on Hong Kong in 2019 to Beppe Grillo, the comedian turned political activist and leader of the Five Star Movement, echoing Beijing’s propaganda on his blog, the populist movement Five Star did not fully rejected its pro-China positions. More recently, Grillo and Vito Petrocelli, five-star senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, approved a Xinjiang report who equates well-documented allegations of human rights violations with “highly politicized anti-China campaigns… most often reporting unfounded, unverifiable or false information”.

Yet the League party, in another political turn justified by the need to remain relevant in the national political landscape, has been vocal about the performance of the second Conte administration on China. In a dramatic about-face that followed League leader Matteo Salvini’s unsuccessful attempt to rush the 2019 elections, Salvini went from approving the Belt and Road memorandum with Beijing to declaring he suspend relations with China if he was prime minister.

Italy also emphasizes economic security and prioritizes industrial strategy, including protecting national champions in key sectors. In just four months, the Draghi administration has repeatedly used government power to limit Beijing’s presence in Italy’s 5G infrastructure and to block the takeover of a semiconductor company. In addition, the suspension of talks on the potential sale of Italian truck manufacturer Iveco to the Chinese group FAW benefited from coordination with France.

With Italy’s renewed emphasis on its traditional alliances comes a realization that the extravagant trade promises made around 2019 have not been kept. As pointed out in a report by the Torino World Affairs Institute published at the end of 2020, “the [economic] calculations [that justified the signature of the Belt and Road memorandum] were optimistic at best, if not entirely misleading. Ironically, in 2020, other European countries that have not joined the Belt and Road initiative, such as France and Germany, have equal or better trade with Beijing than Rome did. Potential collaborations between China and Italy in a number of sectors listed in the memorandum did not materialize.

The botched management of the Belt and Road memorandum entailed serious political costs. As a member of the G-7, a founding member of the EU and NATO, and the third largest economy in the eurozone, Italy endorsing the Belt and Road initiative has given a boost to the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s favorite project at home and abroad. On the other hand, joining the Belt and Road meant that Rome was seen as “Europe’s weakest link in the power struggle with China”. Politics reported, and not only for the United States. As Italy signed the memorandum, French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the need for a “geopolitical and strategic relationship“with China. Insisting on putting an end to” European naivety “towards Beijing, Macron warned against “discuss[ing] bilateral agreements on the new silk road. Similar concerns have also been raised by Berlin through less public channels.

In addition to the reputational damage, participation in the Belt and Road initiative cost Italy a seat at the negotiating table. When the EU and China rushed to finalize the final details of the comprehensive investment deal in December 2020, Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen with President of the European Council Charles Michel during a videoconference with Xi. Although it has been argued that Merkel and Macron’s presence was justified by their roles in the rotating EU presidency, the presence of the French president annoyed The Italian Conte, himself absent from the conference. Ivan Scalfarotto, then Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of the Italia Viva party bound such unusual arrangements with Italy signing the memorandum of understanding. According to him, the signing of the memorandum cost Rome its reputation as a trustworthy negotiating partner.

The new Chinese policy of Rome under the Draghi administration thus seeks to return to its “historical anchors” and shows a clearer vision of Italy’s international posture. A stronger alignment with the European and transatlantic position is illustrated by the approval of a green alternative to the Belt and Road, announced at the G-7 meeting this month. Although each member has different views on the geographic scope of the project, they “broadly agree on the need for a more transparent alternative to the Chinese agenda.”

Responding to a question on whether the signing of the MoU had been raised at the summit, Draghi during his press briefing mentionned that the memorandum will be carefully evaluated. While such a statement does not necessarily imply a revision of the agreement or a formal exit from the Belt and Road initiative per se, it once again signals a different approach from that of the politicians of the Movement. five stars. As fervent supporters of Italy’s participation in the Belt and Road initiative, the two Tale and Di Maio have repeatedly defended Rome’s ambiguous policy towards China.

But with the arrival of Draghi as Prime Minister, even most of the Five Star Movement has changed their stance. While Draghi attended the G-7 summit, Five Star founder Grillo met Chinese Ambassador to Rome Li Junhua. Conte was also due to join the meeting, but he deserted at the last minute, on the advice of the now Atlanticist Di Maio.

Italy’s political flirtation with China may have been only a brief interlude. Draghi’s statement to the G-7 underscores that Rome intends to pursue a franc Chinese policy, to cooperate as much as possible while bearing in mind that Beijing does not respect multilateral rules and does not share a democratic vision of world governance.

This new realpolitik aligns Italy with the tripartite definition of the EU-China Strategic Outlook 2019, which describes Beijing as both a negotiating partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival. It comes at a time of heated debate in Brussels over not only the EU’s relations with China, but also its regional interests in the Indo-Pacific and its links with like-minded partners including Taiwan, the India and Japan. Italy should seize the opportunity presented by Draghi to signal that it is a reliable partner and willing to engage in the development of a cohesive Chinese policy in international forums.


Source link

About Timothy Ball

Check Also

Madison Police Sees Success in Summer Crime Reduction Strategies – With One Exception | criminality

Strategies to reduce specific types of crime in Madison last summer appear to have seen …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *