Latest Chapters in Sino-Italian Ties: BRI and the Outbreak of COVID-19

Preksha Shree Chhetri, Research Assistant, ICS, New Delhi


A Chinese team of experts pose for a photograph with head of the Italian Red Cross Francesco Rocca after arriving at Rome’s Fiumicino airport with a consignment of medical supplies.  

Image Source: Aljazeer

Italy was one of the first few countries in Western Europe to formally recognise People’s Republic of China – in 1970 – and it was the first G7 industrialised country to officially endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Historical roots between Italy and China can be traced to the trade relations that took place between Imperial China and Ancient Rome. In fact, China’s BRI connectivity route to Italy is very similar to the route once used by Marco Polo to travel from Italy to China. The port of Trieste in the Adriatic Sea used to be a very important port for the ancient travellers in this route and is one of the most significant ports mentioned in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on BRI signed by Italy. In Italy, BRI is commonly referred to as ‘Via Della Seta’, which literally translates to the Silk Route. China and Italy have shared an amicable relationship in the past. However, in recent times the Sino-Italian ties have come to the attention of the global community twice. First in March 2019, when Italy and China signed the MoU on BRI and second in March 2020 when Italy saw the highest number of deaths in the World due to COVID-19. Italy and China are among the worst hit countries and they have shown appreciable support to one another. However, a deeper understanding of the situation in Italy shows a different picture leading to growing apprehensions about China.

Sino-Italian cooperation on BRI

The signing of the MoU between Italy and China on BRI in March 2019 marked a new chapter in Sino-Italian ties. Rome’s decision to join BRI had economic motivations. According to a research done by Enrico Fardella and Giorgio Prodi of the University of Bologna, not joining BRI would have had very negative impact on the Italian Economy. In their research article titled “The Belt and Road Initiative Impact on Europe: An Italian Perspective”, they argued that Italian ports on the Adriatic Sea would lose business to the Greece port of Piraeus which has already been acquired by China. Port of Piraeus in Greece provides an alternative mode of maritime transportation between China and Europe without including Italy. In fact, joining BRI would bring added economic benefits as Italian ports are already very well connected to Central and Eastern Europe by rail. Close cooperation with China would mean Italy could potentially be a major hub for trade coming in from Asia through the Suez Canal. For China, Italy could serve as a gateway into the EU with its many important ports such as Venice, Genoa, Trieste and Ravenna. The Greece port of Piraeus, the most important port in the Mediterranean is viewed as a prototype for Italian ports once they join hands with the Chinese. With regards the debt trap rationale, the Italians believe that unlike Sri Lanka, they are not looking for Chinese funding, and therefore, the question of a debt trap does not arise. The rationale for strengthening cooperation is for the advancement of Italy’s own economic goals. As far as the Sino-Italian MoU is concerned, it is basically a framework agreement for twenty-nine deals expanding over various sectors such as agriculture, oil and gas, urban development, sustainable energy, health care and environmental protection. These twenty-nine deals are valued at more than two and a half  billion USD; though it is a non-binding agreement, it clarifies the intent of both the sides about what is expected out of their partnership.

Sino Italian ties and COVID-19

In March 2020, when Italy’s death toll surpassed that of China, the national government approached the European Union (EU) seeking help through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism but to no avail. Most Italian citizens were disillusioned with their EU partner countries, especially with France and Germany as they imposed a ban on export of face masks. In fact, even when the EU intervened and tried to persuade both the countries to lift the ban on corona virus protective equipment, they did not relent. This highlights the inability of the EU to be cohesive while facing a global crisis. In contrast, China not only contributed medical supplies, but also sent three hundred intensive care doctors. After the signing of MoU on BRI, this has been seen as a significant fillip for China in Italy. Some Italian online news media have even characterized it as ‘China saving the day while the EU deserted Italy’, along with images of landings of aircraft laden with medical supplies. However, there is more to this than meets the eye. China’s move to come to Italy’s aid was not entirely philanthropic but rather reciprocal. A month earlier in February, when China was running short of supplies as the outbreak spread through its territory, Italy had sent supplies to Wuhan. In fact, many in Italy are disappointed by the actions of their Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio who went out of his way to share posts and pictures praising China and glorifying Chinese actions to help Italy. Italy as a nations is neither happy with China nor with their own Foreign Minister who believes that the prompt response from China is a result of his robust China policy. Many in Italy blame the Chinese authorities for silencing the doctors who wanted to warn about the outbreak much earlier. Domestically, the Italians have also grown wary of the non-stop Chinese propaganda either in the form of Chinese flags fluttering from hospital windows in the country or in the form of posts shared by their foreign minister praising China.

Overall, online Chinese propaganda in Italy could be deflecting attention away from its mishandling and cover up in Hubei in spite of warning signs. By the same count, questions have also arisen within Italy on China’s motives, with voicing of discomfort over China’s subtle presence in their day to day lives. There also exist extreme racist reactions targeting those of Chinese descent and nationality in the backdrop of the outbreak. Given these developments, what becomes of the so far cordial Sino-Italian ties is a question worth pondering.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has paused the momentum that was created in March 2019 with the signing of the bilateral MoU on BRI between the two countries. Though the bilateral MoU is considered a substantial proof of partnership, it is non-binding. Therefore, the future of China’s BRI projects in Italy may be precarious especially in terms of public receptivity. These two new chapters in Sino-Italian relations has led to some really pertinent questions about the future of Sino-Italian friendship – Can Sino-Italian ties withstand the challenges brought about by the outbreak of COVID-19? What is the future of BRI projects in Italy? Will a continued friendship with China hamper Italy’s relations with its western partners in a post pandemic world?

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