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Foreign Policy

Italy Torn Between the US and China

May 29 , 2020

Since last year, Italy has become one of the main battlefields in the US-China global rivalry. On March 23, 2019, Italy became the first G7 nation to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This was a strategic setback for the United States in its tug-of-war with China over trade and global leadership.

One year after the signing of the MOU, the Rome-Beijing relationship – and its implications for the transatlantic alliance – are back in the spotlight following the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic in Italy – the first major outbreak of COVID-19 outside of China. In March 2020, the Italian government imposed a strict lockdown to contain the virus and began reaching out to Beijing for help since the country lacked critical medical supplies. China sent masks, medical supplies, and doctors, receiving much media and political attention.

The support provided by China – accompanied by a well-orchestrated media campaign – has translated into a more positive perception of the country among Italians. On April 20, an opinion poll by SWG research institute (one of Italy’s major polling companies) showed that 52% of Italians would consider China their “best friend” (up from 42% from last year), followed by Russia, which was considered a “friend” by 32% of those interviewed (up from 17% last year). Meanwhile, the United States was seen as a friend of Italy by just 17% of those polled, a drop of 12% from 2019. This is the most visible result of how Italy – a long-standing ally of the US – is increasingly becoming part of China’s sphere of influence, at least in terms of public opinion.

The virus strikes Italy

As the virus erupted in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the Italian government adopted strong measures that were viewed by Chinese leaders as unfriendly, including the suspension of all flight connections to and from China. In the face of mounting xenophobic acts against Chinese people in January and February this year, Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, took a number of friendly initiatives towards China, an endeavor that was dubbed the “diplomacy of solidarity”. His efforts were culminated on February 13 when President Mattarella organized, in his official residence, a concert by Chinese pianist Jin Ju within the framework of the 2020 Italy-China Year of Culture and Tourism. China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that the concert showed Italy’s “special friendship with the Chinese people.”

As the virus spread throughout Italy, the country became Europe’s hardest-hit by the pandemic. Lacking critical medical supplies, Italy reached out to Beijing for help – not least against the backdrop of the slow reaction of the European partners and the US on whom Italy has traditionally relied. Beijing coupled the medical support it sent with an effective communication strategy. The official Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy in Italy, for example, regularly posted videos, vignettes, slogans, and messages emphasizing the support it provided to the country. China’s ambassador to Italy, Li Junhua, even released interviews and personal messages of support to the Italian population through the Twitter account, focusing on simple messages like, “We understand what Italy is going through and are here to help.”

The media campaign was a boost to staunchly pro-China voices within Italy’s government, particularly Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who took credit for arranging Chinese donations of masks and medical supplies and personally met Chinese doctors at the airport as they arrived. The event was live-streamed on Di Maio’s Facebook account, where the politician portrayed Chinese donations as the result of the special ties between the two countries.

There are signs that the media campaign actually produced remarkable results in terms of a positive perception of China among Italians, as mentioned earlier in this article. It was certainly news for the April 7 opinion poll by SWG to note for the first time that Italians looked more to China as a potential international partner than to the United States.

For China, positive views internationally could help to influence one of the thorniest issues in the US-China rivalry: Huawei.

The Huawei affair

In December 2019, “Copasir”, the body of the Italian Parliament charged with overseeing the activities of the Italian intelligence agencies, issued a report stating, in essence, that the country should not allow the use of Chinese technology in Italian 5G infrastructure so as to protect Italy’s national interest and avoid jeopardizing the transatlantic alliance.

The US has pressured Italy since 2018 to ban Huawei. On March 25 this year, the Trump administration released its “National Strategy to Secure 5G”, which aims, among other goals, to prevent Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei and ZTE from entering the US market and those of its allies – though the document does not single China out by name and refers instead to “‘high-risk’ vendors.”

The current Italian government – a center-left coalition between the M5S and the Democratic Party in power since September 2019 – oscillates between sending signs to Trump that “we are cooperating,” while there continue to be vested interests that are pro-China. After being sworn in on September 4, 2019, the first act of Giuseppe Conte’s government was to activate the so-called “golden power”, a mechanism based on a 2012 law allowing the Italian authorities to examine foreign investment in strategic sectors and critical infrastructure. The objective was to scrutinize a number of supply deals for 5G networks, including a few involving the Chinese ICT companies Huawei and ZTE. The move was a clear signaling of Italian cooperation to US President Donald Trump, who, just a few weeks earlier, had endorsed the Conte’s government in a tweet.

In April of this year, the Italian government reformed the “golden power” rule, increasing the level of scrutiny for Chinese ICT companies. However, Huawei continues to operate in Italy. Stefano Patuanelli, a leading figure of the M5S and the current minister of economic development, responsible for ICT infrastructure and 5G networks, has stated several times that he will not block Huawei from bidding for the construction of 5G in Italy. He has cited both economic reasons and the fact that Italian intelligence services have so far not found evidence of malicious Chinese state cyber activity through Huawei.

Elements inside the government maintaining closer relations with China argue that banning Huawei from Italy would have serious economic consequences. In fact, Huawei is a partner of three mobile operators in Italy – Wind-Tre, Vodafone, and TIM. Equipment from the Chinese company is used across 20-30% of their mobile networks and also accounts for about 10% of the landline network operated by TIM, Italy’s main phone operator. In recent 5G mobile communications auctions, Huawei was a leading candidate to supply 5G equipment to mobile networks in various Italian cities, including Milan, where Huawei is a partner of Vodafone. Milan is also the home to one of Huawei’s most important research and development centers outside China. 

Conclusion

Since Italy’s signing of the MOU on the Belt and Road Initiative last year, the country’s China policy has teetered between assuaging Washington’s concerns and promoting closer ties with Beijing. Some Italian politicians openly support China’s positions on various issues today, including Huawei. Despite US pressure to ban the Chinese tech giant, Huawei is likely to remain active in Italy, thanks to powerful vested interests connected to the current center-left government.

It is possible, however that a center-right government in Italy would fare the same in the China debate. After all, Italy is a trading nation that has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Economic recovery will require years, and Italy may have little choice as a consequence but to remain on good terms – however much uncertainty this causes – with the two great powers of our time: the US and China.

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