Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi faces a challenge balancing his country's relations with the US, the EU, and China. Photo: AFP

In March 2019, the premise seemed to be excellent to write a new chapter in the Sino-Italian relationship, thanks to the signing of a memorandum of understanding through which Italy became the first nation in the Group of Seven to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In particular, during the official visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Rome, the MoU functioned as the framework within which the two countries signed 29 trade agreements and institutional arrangements to reinforce bilateral ties and activate mechanisms to benefit businesses and professionals from both sides.

But what happened next? The reality is that no results have materialized yet. 

Since then, the context within which the friendship between Rome and Beijing was shaped dramatically changed – and not only because of the Covid-19 crisis that tested the waters of China’s ties with the rest of the world.

Indeed, political shifts transformed the Italian landscape twice, leading to a political vacuum. These were two different coalitions led by Giuseppe Conte, the first supported by the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord, and the second formed by the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party.

More specifically, in January this year, Conte stepped down as prime minister after many fractures within the coalition he led. The crisis found a response only when President Sergio Mattarella gave Mario Draghi the task of putting together a unity government formed by the main political parties in February.

Draghi, who is also the former head of the European Central Bank (ECB), brilliantly guided the country through its darkest period, facing the challenges boosted by the pandemic, the economic crisis and the social instability. 

Nonetheless, in spite of the results achieved within the national borders, it is equally important to understand what role Italy could play in foreign affairs, especially in relation to Beijing.

Rome seems now determined to occupy a greater space on the European foreign-relations chessboard, and understanding what direction it would like to pursue means understanding also what will be the “wind” blowing over the Sino-European sky in the near future.

It cannot be denied that relationships with China constitute a top-priority topic on the agenda of Western nations, with which the country is experiencing different degrees of tensions.

Recently, for example, the media reported, debates arose leading to calls in the West for a boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2022, another example of the widespread discontent toward China that extends beyond the political and economical spheres.

As for what relates to Italy, it is interesting to note that while Conte demonstrated interest in making the country a bridge between the West and the East through a solid collaboration with Beijing, Draghi embraced a different pathway to address concerns in Brussels and Washington over Italy’s decisions about the MoU and the BRI. 

For this purpose, the new government’s attitude toward Beijing deserves attention to understand better the sentiments that define Sino-Italian friendship at the moment, and to what extent Italy will be able to renew its foreign-policy strategy to gain trust and influence in the international arena. 

The new prime minister clearly wants to move Rome closer to the orbit of traditional Western allies. Draghi, in fact, distanced himself from Beijing (and Moscow), to stress Italy’s ties to the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance on the occasion of the Group of Seven meeting in June.

A few moves clarified the government’s position even before that important summit. In March, for example, it issued a decree to block a contract made by Huawei and ZTE with the Italian telecommunication firm Linkem that was related to supply deals for fifth-generation (5G) telecom services.

In April, in addition, Rome decided to stop two Chinese companies from acquiring shares in Iveco, a transport-vehicle manufacturer that is part of CNH Industrial, which operates in the semiconductor sector. 

This message – shared through facts and words – was certainly welcomed by US President Joe Biden and the European leaders; however, such firmness could be counterproductive. To be influential on the global stage, Italy needs a different approach to China, an approach not influenced by external actors but rather oriented toward the balancing of multiple interests to put in place a strategic cooperation with Beijing. 

In the current multipolar order put under pressure by the Covid-19 crisis and social changes, a tug-of-war between nations cannot serve as a solution. Pragmatism does instead, and it is by following a similar approach that Rome should look at the global stage to understand how to stand in front of major actors.

Italy should promote its own interests, along with those of Europe, without ignoring the fact that partnering with China is relevant – if not fundamental – in several areas, from the economy to climate change and international security.

Is there really a “round table” at which the West can afford not to invite Beijing? Not any more.  

Federica Russo

Federica Russo is director of eesearch at Wikistrat, a consulting firm helping Fortune 500 corporations, governments and non-profit organizations to brainstorm solutions and obtain an in-depth understanding of their landscape by using a crowdsourcing approach. She is an Italian based in Kuala Lumpur, who also writes about business and geopolitics for international media outlets and think-tanks.