On March 23, 2019, Italy officially became part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Two years since the first G-7 country became part of the controversial Chinese project, it is time to make an initial assessment of Italy’s highly contested membership in the BRI.
Three important elements, two external and one internal, have been fundamental in shaping the development of the BRI in Italy. The two exogenous elements are the increasing tensions between the China and the United States, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The former has translated into more U.S. engagement with Europe, including Italy, to secure alignment in policies toward China. A sample result of this effort was the cancellation of a potential collaboration between the Italian Space Agency (ISA) and China National Space Administration (CNSA) to build habitational modules for the Chinese space station Tiangong 3. Another result, which falls in line with steps taken in other EU countries, regards changes that curtail the possibility of Huawei participating in development of the Italian 5G network. Admittedly, neither example cited above directly relates to the Memorandum of Understanding signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Italy in March 2019. However, both are examples of a change of Italy’s position toward collaboration with Chinese entities, whether public or private, following pressure from the United States. The collaboration regarding the Chinese space station, interestingly, was abandoned soon after March 2019.
The second external element is the outbreak of COVID-19. Last year was meant to be very important for the relationship between Italy and China. In 2020, Italy and China celebrated the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relationship and were meant to celebrate the Year of Tourism Italy-China, now postponed to 2022. A line-up of events and celebrations had been organized for both, which had to be cancelled amid the pandemic. Furthermore, as the first year after the signing of the MoU, 2020 should have seen the initial materialization of the agreements signed on the occasion of Xi’s state visit. It is difficult to say whether in the absence of the pandemic, most of the BRI-related agreements would have materialized, but it can be confidently stated that without the pandemic we would have witnessed further developments. In fact, even with the pandemic, a series of deals materialized, and a limited number of new ones were reached, although mostly among private actors, at least on the Italian side.
The internal element shaping the BRI’s development in Italy is the numerous changes to the Italian government in the past two years. When the MoU for the BRI was signed, Italy was governed by a populist coalition formed by the Five-Star Movement (5SM) and the far-right League. The latter would rediscover its transatlantic call shortly before Xi’s state visit. Within this coalition, a mixture of rejection of Italy’s traditional alliances, Euro-skepticism, naïveté, and interests that pointed in favor of China led to the decision to sign the MoU. In September 2019, however, that government was replaced by a new coalition, which saw the 5SM being joined by the mainstream center-left Democratic Party (PD). The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, remained the same.
The new coalition did not necessarily have a less favorable view of China. Historically, Italy’s left has cultivated very positive relations with China. However, it adopted a less sensationalistic approach and placed Italy back into its traditional alliance systems. Notably, after September 2019, Italy adopted a very European approach in its dealings with China. Italy quietly maintained a rather positive relationship with China, while joining with the other EU countries in occasional critiques of China, and, as already mentioned, adopting a response to 5G similar to its fellow Europeans: excluding Huawei without imposing a blanket ban.
At the beginning of 2021, Italy underwent another change of government. It is now led by Mario Draghi and is even more embedded in Italy’s traditional alliances than the previous government. Given that this government has not been in power long, the assessments that will be made here mostly relate to the government of Conte II, when the 5SM governed with PD.
Keeping in mind what has so far been said, the examples that follow will show that the great majority of MoUs signed between Italy and China were either an expression of intentions that were rarely materialized or the consolidation of an already established relationship.
A notable lack of materialization can be found in the MoUs signed between the port of Genoa and the port of Trieste with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). In brief, so far, there has been a lack of developments in the collaborations in this sector and it seems there will not be any in the future. The new BRI terminal of Vado Ligure, near Genoa, is the result of an agreement that long predates the MoU of March 2019. It dates back to the creation of the joint venture APM Terminals Vado Ligure Spa back in 2016. Furthermore, the joint venture does not involve of CCCC, the signatory of the MoU, but of COSCO and Qingdao Port. In other words, so far, the only development in the maritime sector linked to the BRI involves a project that is not part of the MoUs of March 2019.
Another example is the collaboration between the Italian Space Agency and the China National Space Administration for the mission “China Seismo-Electromegnatic Satellite 02” (CSES-02). This project is also predated the signing of the MoUs. It represents phase two of an already ongoing collaboration between ISA and CNSA on CSES-01. The collaboration in the energy sector between Ansaldo Energia and both China United Gas Turbine Technology Co. and Shanghai Electric Power Corp. was also established before 2019. Other examples of already existing relationships that were formalized by signing MoUs in March 2019 are those of Cassa Depositi and Prestiti, Eni and Intesa San Paolo with Chinese counterparts such as Bank of China and the city of Qingdao.
Some successful developments of the MoUs have been the restitution of 796 archaeological artifacts from Italy to China, which occurred in March 2019. There was also collaboration between the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) and the Alibaba Group for the creation in 2020 of an online “Made in Italy Pavilion” for Business to Business (B2B) commerce. Finally, one notable successful MoU has been that between the Italian news agency Ansa and its Chinese counterpart Xinhua. Despite the relationship again predating March 2019, it was only after March 2019 that news from Xinhua translated in Italian began to appear on the website of Ansa, labelled as Xinhua News.
All in all, Italy has undeniably witnessed the developments of many of the MoUs signed in March 2019. However, as anticipated, most of the MoUs were the result of collaboration that already existed before 2019 and thus, arguably, Italy would have witnessed the same type of developments even without joining the BRI, with some exceptions. Furthermore, if the BRI is analyzed uniquely as a connectivity and infrastructure project, then only a handful of the examples presented above can be considered as being part of the BRI.
However, the mere fact that alongside the signing of the BRI MoU, other MoUs belonging to diverse sectors were also signed means that not only for China, but also for Italy, the BRI is about a lot more than just connectivity. The BRI is a way to frame the relationship between a country and China. In both cases, one can easily say that yes, the BRI has not been as successful as one would have thought, in Italy and elsewhere. But it is not dead.