- (Analysis) DPRK-Russia-China Economic Triangle - November 8, 2023
- (REPORT) Italy and the BRI: in the Shadow of Sino-American Competition and Balancing National Interest - October 27, 2023
Italy’s exit from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seems to be inescapable. The government in Rome seems now poised to not renew the BRI Memorandum of Understanding (MoU); however, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her executive have yet to find a way out of the deal without displeasing or antagonizing China. Meloni’s primary goal is to defend Italy’s national interests, and while exiting the BRI would ensure it, the risk of retaliation from China is currently too big of a threat, which puts the government on a difficult path.
News of Rome’s willingness to possibly withdraw from the BRI surfaced in early May (Albanese, 2023). Rome’s calculations should not be surprising. While enticing at the time of its signing, the BRI has not brought great dividends. The former Conte Government signed a MoU in March 2019, making Italy the first G7 country to become a partner in China’s BRI. In addition to the main MoU between the two nations, twenty-nine other agreements (ten commercial and nineteen institutional in character) were also inked. The MoU is valid for four years and contains a clause of automatic renewal in March 2024 if Italy does not notify China of its intention to withdraw three months prior. The MoU, however, is not a legally binding contract but simply an agreement outlining a framework for cooperation with mostly political implications for the two parties. The BRI is part of China’s strategy aimed at establishing a stable strategic space that is conducive to the long-term development of China’s economic and politico-military influence and power. In the words of David Sacks, “China has had a fair amount of success in redrawing trade maps around the world” (McBride et al., 2023) and Beijing’s focus on Italy is aimed at expanding Chinese clout in Europe.
Against this backdrop, the Italian government finds itself at a crossroads, dictated in large part by national interests but also by the growing Sino-American competition. In stark contrast to 2019, when the MoU was signed, the Biden administration has been soliciting partners (Brazinsky, 2023) and allies across the globe to reevaluate their ties to China, going beyond pure economic interests and instead emphasizing security aspects. A refusal to renew the MoU would align with the political trend seen in Italy since the Draghi government – successor to Conte’s – and with Meloni’s well-known position on the issue. During Meloni’s campaign, the current PM went as far as categorizing the MoU a mistake (Italy’s PM, 2022), complementing her clear transatlantic focus.
However, the fact that there has been no official decision yet shows how delicate the situation is for the Italian government. This conundrum is both deeply woven into and simultaneously a symptom of the worsening Sino-American competition. There are risks inherent to this conundrum, regardless of the path the government chooses, given potential repercussions from Beijing or more pressure from Western allies. Italy’s struggle is a prime example of the push for decoupling (Posen, 2023) and friend-shoring, currently being rebranded as de-risking (Ardense, 2023), especially on the technological and trade fronts. As such, Italy’s hedging strategy towards Washington and Beijing is being questioned (Lohman, 2022) by other Western powers, and will have to come to terms with the current geopolitical global reality.
China’s Presence in Italy
For Italy, China represents an important trade partner. As of 2022, China sits in second place and tenth in Italian imports (Italy Imports, n.d.) and exports (Italy Exports, n.d.), respectively. However, since the trade spike in February 2023, the highest ever recorded in terms of bilateral trade, exports to China have been falling, nesting at circa 1.281 USD bn in April 2023 (Italy Total Exports, n.d.). Similarly, imports have also been witnessing a gradual downward tendency since 2022, reaching 4.272 USD bn in April 2023 (Italy Total Imports, n.d.). Along a similar orientation, China’s outbound investment in 2022 dropped 22% compared to 2021, reaching a total sum of 7.9 billion USD (Kratz et al., 2023). More broadly, according to data from the Rhodium Group, Chinese FDI in Italy experienced a significant decrease from US$650 million in 2019 to US$20 million in 2020 and further to US$33 million in 2021 (Xie, 2023).
Despite this downward course, Italy remains a geostrategic point of entry (Contessi, 2019) for Chinese goods to make it into the European market. This has become more evident, especially after Chinese state-owned COSCO Shipping’s acquisition (Georgiopulous, 2016) of the Piraeus port in Greece. From the Aegean Sea, Chinese goods enter the Mediterranean and then onto the Adriatic or the Tyrrhenian Seas as the obligatory routes to connect maritime and inland trade routes in Europe (Page, 2014). From Italy, thanks to existing infrastructure, Chinese goods can easily enter the Austrian, Swiss, German, Hungarian, and Balkan markets.
In 2017, as part of the EU-China Connectivity Platform, the port of Trieste was included in the Trihub project, aimed at bettering the rail connections of the port and resulting in direct trains between Trieste and Venice. Within this context, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) planned to construct the station of Trieste Servola (Ghiretti, 2020) along with a deep water quay in the port of Venice (Bottazzo, 2019). Similarly, cooperation in the port of Ravenna in 2018, where China Merchant Group invested 10 million euros (New Silk Road, 2018) with the aim of making the city the European hub of naval engineering and Oil & Gas. Not limiting its focus to the Adriatic, China also invested in Italy’s west coast, given its close proximity to the French and Iberian Peninsula markets. In 2016, COSCO Shipping and Qingdao Port bought 49.9% of the Vado Ligure container terminal (Ghiretti, 2021). The BRI framework represents both an extension as well as an organic progression of pre-existing bilateral relations, consolidating them under a unified platform. Since its inception, Italian exports to China have experienced significant growth, surpassing previous levels with a remarkable 42% increase between 2019 and 2021. The bilateral trade volume reached nearly $78 billion in 2022. However, it should be noted that the MoU has not resulted in a deeper integration in comparison with other EU countries. While there has been an overall increase in interaction between the two nations, the trade balance remains heavily skewed in China’s favor. Italian exports to China have grown at a less substantial rate than anticipated, rising from $13 billion in 2019 to $16.4 billion in 2022. On the other hand, Chinese exports to Italy have witnessed a significant surge, escalating from $31.7 billion in 2019 to $57.5 billion in 2022. Consequently, China stands as Italy’s second-largest supplier, having captured an 8.2% market share. However, Italy remains a secondary trading partner for China, ranking 22nd in terms of customers and 24th in terms of suppliers globally (Fatiguso, 2021).
The Fine Balance between National Interest and the Transatlantic Alliance
Despite the seeming linearity in bilateral relations and Italy following general European interest and the prospect of getting closer to the fastest-growing market on the planet, Rome’s decision to join the BRI raised concerns among Western allies, particularly the United States and certain European partners (NSC 45 Archived, 2019; Ching, 2019). The main motivation behind Italy’s participation in the BRI was the extravagant commercial promises made by China, which, albeit never fully specified, were presumably supposed to cater to Rome’s economic and investment needs while also furthering Beijing’s interests. While the MoU was an opportunity to strengthen economic ties and integration for Italy, China saw it as a strategic decision that could have implications for Italy’s geopolitical positioning and its relations with the United States. By endorsing the BRI, Italy significantly bolstered President Xi Jinping’s influence and the initiative itself. Consequently, Rome was perceived as the weakest European link (Roberts, 2020) in the power struggle with China. Despite the reputational damage and political costs incurred, Italy’s BRI membership did not disrupt its existing alliances with the U.S. and other European nations. However, after two years, the new government under Mario Draghi still chose to distance itself from China and instead shifted towards a more Atlanticist and European-oriented foreign policy.
Currently, maintaining this trend, Italy’s cooling relationship with China has led Giorgia Meloni to adopt a harsher stance towards Beijing and align more with Washington’s interests. Meloni has, for instance, been vocal in her support for Taiwan and has underscored how the BRI economic returns have been falling short (Ai et al., 2023). Meloni’s government has therefore realized how the traditional Italian hedging strategy towards the U.S. and China needs to be refocused. Meloni’s Atlanticist credentials (Marrone, 2022) and inclinations play a crucial role in Italy’s decision. However, making the choice is proving harder than expected for the Italian government, which has to deal with multiple factors affecting its national interest.
First, the geostrategic shift caused by the Ukraine War puts Italy in a difficult position. With NATO’s refocus on its Northeastern front, Italy is being forced to reappraise its strategic approach toward its immediate geographic sphere of interest, the broader Mediterranean, as underscored in a press release from the Council of Ministers (Comunicato Stampa, 2023). Additionally, NATO’s growing attention on the Indo-Pacific and the perception of China as a major challenge to its interests and security would clash with a potential renewal of the BRI MoU. It is safe to assume that the Italian government understands that NATO unity is necessary to maintain a credible deterrence posture and ensure the collective defense and security of its members. This perspective is particularly relevant in the case of Italy now that its southern front will see less NATO involvement in the foreseeable future. Pushing Italy’s national agenda within the NATO framework could have adverse consequences. Italy’s mismatch with NATO’s priorities would result in self-marginalization, which, in turn, would prompt a chain reaction wherein Italy’s voice and weight in influencing the direction of the alliance would gradually reduce.
Second, there is a growing necessity within the EU and its members to attempt to reach a common stance toward China that somewhat aligns with Washington while also balancing a desire to engage with China on trade and investment, resisting its economic coercion. However, Italy’s renewal of the BRI MoU would risk sending a mixed signal to both Washington and its EU partners, undermining unity in the EU’s approach to China as well as the Union’s negotiating power. Beijing is likely to attempt to drive a wedge between the EU and the U.S. and prevent Europe from following Washington, particularly regarding measures like export controls of key technologies. Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials seem to have launched a charm offensive, pivoting to the economic turnout that the BRI brought to Italy since 2019. Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, met with Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani in February this year, expressing Beijing’s interest in strengthening bilateral relations based on the already solid track record. Similarly, China’s Ambassador Jia Guide (Fatiguso, 2023), in an interview with an Italian newspaper, underscored the importance of the MoU and its value in terms of maintaining positive commercial exchanges. However, despite the lack of integration outlined in the above section, should Italy decide not to renew the BRI MoU, it will likely miss out on potential trade opportunities. One specific concern is related to Italian ports along the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas. It should be recognized that railway services, due to their comparatively higher costs, are unlikely to account for a significant proportion of total import and export flows. Therefore, the focus on expanding port infrastructure becomes all the more crucial. Investments in new port facilities, though relatively less novel compared to railway developments, has the potential to bring about significant changes. It is worth noting here that the expansion of the Port of Piraeus has already heightened the Mediterranean Sea’s significance as a pivotal trade hub for China. Consequently, Italy faces a substantial challenge as its ports could potentially face displacement because of the Piraeus port’s capacity, particularly if the latter is connected to the heart of Europe through railway networks. As a result, goods might bypass Italian ports altogether, bypassing the need for transportation via Italian railways.
Third, the Meloni government has to deal with the priorities and perspectives of the three different parties making up the government coalition when it comes to relations with Beijing. Meloni, as previously noted, has been very vocal and perhaps even harsh towards China and the BRI. Forza Italia’s representatives fall in line with Meloni and her party. Notably, Senator Stefania Craxi (Craxi, 2023), a member of Forza Italia and chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, has expressed her intention to present a resolution in said committee, aiming to ensure the Parliament’s comprehensive engagement and to assess the situation realistically. Senator Craxi has highlighted that the MoU holds implications that extend well beyond the realm of commerce, emphasizing that Italy’s trade with China lags behind that of other EU nations, despite being the sole Western European country to have signed an MoU. According to the senator, the decision to sign the MoU was an unfortunate mistake that has had negative consequences for Italy. Similarly, during an interview with II Messaggero, Antonio Tajani, the Italian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, discussed Italy’s reconsideration of its participation in the BRI (Bechis, 2023). This is taking place within the broader context of Western countries reevaluating their stances on Beijing, in light of China’s increasing assertiveness and its unfair market practices, which are perceived as long-term strategic threats. Tajani stressed that China is regarded as a competitor and that, while Italy aims to maintain positive relations, it is crucial that all parties adhere to the same set of rules. He expressed opposition to practices such as social and environmental dumping, unfair competition, and the extraction of knowledge without a commitment to long-term investment. Giancarlo Giorgetti, Italy’s Economy Minister, echoed similar sentiments during the G7 Finance meeting, emphasizing the importance of economic security in relation to the BRI. Giorgetti highlighted the connection between economic security and the green- and energy transitions, as a significant proportion of critical raw materials originate from countries influenced by or having strong ties with China. He underscored that this aspect makes economic security a central concern. On the other hand, Matteo Salvini, leader of the League – in second place in the coalition – has been very ambiguous. Salvini, during a video conference at the Adriatic Sea Summit, declared to have his own ideas about the BRI, that of engaging in 360-degree trade (Folli, 2023). In other parts of the party, opinions are more unequivocal. Massimiliano Fedriga, President of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region and a notable member of the League, emphasized that the current international context necessitates different decision-making. Ultimately, the League, including its leader, Matteo Salvini, as he himself has acknowledged, will need to cooperate and uphold unity within the government. Overall, while there seems to be a general alignment regarding the BRI and the MoU, the way to achieve decoupling from China is not clearly set and agreed upon within the government, given that the stress over the need for “pragmatism and serious reflection” has yet to be clearly defined.
Lastly, Italy is actively seeking closer bilateral relations with Taiwan, as demonstrated by Gian Marco Centinaio, Vice President of the Italian Senate, visiting Taipei (Yeh, 2023) and meeting with government and parliamentary officials, including President Tsai Ing-wen. Centinaio expressed strong support for Taiwan, recognizing it as an important stronghold of democracy deserving of backing. Echoing these concerns, Foreign Minister Tajani emphasized the importance of maintaining the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region and preventing Taiwan from becoming a second Ukraine.
Rome and Taipei are discussing strengthening bilateral ties. This includes plans to open a Taipei representative office in Milan in addition to the existing one in Rome. Furthermore, the establishment of a direct flight route between Milan and Taipei, along with the commitment of the Italian Navy in the Indo-Pacific region, are key measures to foster closer cooperation.
Italian officials from the Ministry of Enterprise, led by Adolfo Urso, also visited Taiwan to explore potential collaborations in semiconductor production and exports (Albanese, 2023). Discussions involved exploring opportunities for cooperation with TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company), and there is merit to a perspective where Italy may be considering not renewing the BRI MoU with China in exchange for bolstering semiconductor ties with Taiwan. Italy’s focus on Taiwan and its semiconductor industry stems from both domestic needs and international strategic goals. The sector holds particular significance for Italy’s automotive industry, and there is a broader EU and U.S. agenda to reduce dependence on external supply chains. Additionally, Italy’s participation in partnerships supporting emerging technologies adds to the appeal of the semiconductor sector, given the rapid pace of technological innovation and competition.
The geopolitical implications of a potential chip deal with Taiwan are complex. Such a deal could gain Italy the approval of the G7 and the EU, as it would be seen as a positive step towards diversifying away from a reliance on China. However, it would likely also put a strain on Italy’s relationship with China, as well as China’s interest in preserving its global influence and all BRI engagements. China’s rapid economic growth and global influence have enabled it to exert pressure on countries and international organizations to align with its “One China” policy. Engaging with Taiwan in a manner that China views as enabling the erosion of its perceived territorial integrity can result in diplomatic consequences, strained relations, and economic repercussions, dictated by the need to maintain its global influence and, in this specific instance, BRI engagements.
Meloni and her government find themselves in a particularly delicate position. Regardless of which decision they make, Italy will have to navigate potential economic and political repercussions. Meloni herself has to demonstrate that her Atlanticist and Europeanist rhetoric will be followed by action. Currently, given the mounting pressure under intensified Sino-American rivalry, Italy’s Western partners have influenced its choices, somewhat limiting them.
There is a compelling argument to be made in favor of truncating the MoU. The grand promises of economic development, investment and exports, and access to the Chinese market have not been realized and did not bring the economic growth the Italian government was hoping for. While it is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic had a non-negligible impact on bilateral trade, the China decoupling trend, accompanied by Italy’s need to focus on spurring domestic growth, makes renewing the MoU a gamble which risks increasing Rome’s public debt, already the second highest in the eurozone. Secondly, not renewing the MoU would help Italy gain a better standing with its traditional allies in the G7 and the EU, and potentially shaping the future of EU-China relations. In the spirit of a unitary approach towards China, Italy’s abandonment of the BRI could prompt other European nations to drop their own BRI cooperations altogether or at the very least, reduce them. As such, while exiting the BRI would represent a diplomatic setback vis-á-vis China, there would be limited economic fallout but more long-term assurances on the critical supply chains and security for Italy.
Presently, it appears likely that Italy will abandon the BRI. However, that decision is not as clear-cut and still awaits Parliamentary deliberation and officialization. Italy needs a calculated plan to engage in de-risking practices if this is indeed the government’s objective. This plan would need to entail having a clear vision of both the possible short- and long-term gains to be made and the repercussions that could be suffered. As such, Italy seems poised to maintain its hedging stance towards Beijing and Washington, probably pursuing alternatives to the MoU itself, in order to reassure G7 and EU allies while simultaneously maintaining cooperation with China. Dropping the MoU represents a gamble that Italy might not be able to afford in the short term, both politically and economically. On the purely economic front, in the words of Wang Huyao, “the Italian economy is going nowhere and joining the Belt and Road Initiative earlier than others is a great opportunity… Italy has many economic problems, Europe is in crisis, and the BRI is the only major global investment plan.” (Santelli, 2019). On the political front, the aforementioned Jia Guide was quite clear as he stated that “China attaches great importance to the partnership with Italy,” and that all of the achievements in bilateral trade and investments achieved since 2019 are “inseparable from the MoU, which is not a legally binding agreement but reflects the political will of the two parties to strengthen mutual concrete cooperation” (Fatiguso, 2023). Additionally, over-reliance on the U.S. economic and security fronts is being debated. On the Taiwan front, caution is advised since a deal on semiconductors with Taipei would upset Beijing. If done with careful consideration, Italy would approach such a deal while in consultation with Beijing as well, reassuring it of Rome’s support for the “one-China” policy. At the same time, Italy would be able to defend its national interest further by ensuring long-term participation in projects aimed at developing critical technologies and safeguarding Rome from supply chain disruptions.
As such, in the spirit of guarding and pursuing national interests, pragmatism dictates that Italy maintains its hedging strategy with both Washington and Beijing. Maintaining a solid relationship with the U.S. is paramount to catering to Italy’s security concerns. Chinese involvement in the Mediterranean is fraught with risks, and adding another player to the fray would complicate the already fragile situation regarding Italy’s immediate neighborhood while forcing Rome to push back against Chinese assertiveness. Italy might use its de-risking and decoupling efforts as leverage in dealing with Washington and even Brussels – NATO and the EU. First, realizing that the long-term focus of the U.S. and NATO by extension, will be China and the Indo-Pacific, Italy will have to approach the securitization of the broader Mediterranean not through multilateral fora alone anymore but through bilateral or ad-hoc deals, within the EU framework of policy priorities relying on limited support from both the U.S. and NATO. Additionally, from an economic perspective, standing within the Western camp, beyond security supply chains for critical materials in the long term, would allow Italy to work towards healing its dysfunctional economy. Both COVID-19 and the Ukraine War resulted in a slowdown for the Italian economy, bringing the country’s public debt to above 150 per cent of GDP. While Italy managed to avoid economic scarring and eventually made a full recovery from the pandemic, the war in Ukraine triggered a surge in energy prices, and the prospect of monetary policy tightening caused government bond yields to rise sharply. As Meloni remarked, referring to the impact of sanctions against Russia on the Italian economy, within the Western alliance, there are those who pay more, those who pay less, and those who gain. Hence de-risking with China could be used as leverage by the government with the objective of convincing the U.S. and other EU states to agree to the compensation fund Meloni herself has been pushing for in order to redistribute burdens equally and in case economic relations with China fall through.
Italy cannot yet afford to substitute China within its rooster of trade partners. However, while Italy is the only G7 country to have signed a BRI MoU, its economic relations with China are not the strongest within the panoply of Western and European powers. As such, as Meloni remarked, “it is possible to have good relations with Beijing, also in important domains, without them necessarily being part of an overall strategic plan.” (Sorgi, 2023). The major issue that the government will have to deal with will be convincing Beijing of this deal. Given China’s charm offensive across Europe advocating the separation of political issues from economic ones, as underscored by Liu Jianchao during his visit to Rome at the end of June (Senior China, 2023). Beijing has been adamant regarding the importance it attaches to the BRI. The Italian government is, however, poised to respond in kind, signaling a firm commitment to truncate the MoU and instead solidify the U.S.-Italy alliance. Meloni’s discussion with Biden in July 2023 has solidified this perspective, showing Rome’s willingness to cool relations with Beijing. Following these developments, Foreign Minister Tajani’s September visit to China was de facto the initial diplomatic means to inform China of Italy’s choice to leave the BRI and an attempt to dampen repercussions. From the perspective of managing the exit effectively, it would not be surprising to see the eventuality reported by Giulia Pompili on II Foglio come to fruition. The Italian Foreign Ministry, which has yet to confirm this possibility, has reportedly been working on an alternative document to the MoU (Pompili, 2023). Alternatively, as it has been hinted to by Meloni during her meeting with Li Qiang on the sides of the G20, the BRI and the subsequent exit will be the foundation upon which future Italy-China relations will be based, in concomitance with the comprehensive strategic partnership signed between Beijing and Rome in 2004. These visits and the alternative means to ensure the maintenance of a functioning relationship might serve as means to keep China from losing face and avoiding tensions. Sergio Mattarella’s visit to Beijing, scheduled for January 2024, can be seen as part of this process of slowly drifting away from China’s orbit while still attempting to offer Beijing a modicum of respect by maintaining a functioning relationship that does not revolve around the BRI, given the Initiative’s now incredibly charged renown. This could reduce political and economic fallouts with China to the minimum, help maintain a degree of cooperation and continue exploring and exploiting the potential of bilateral cooperation between Beijing and Rome.
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