For some time now, the relationship with China has been one of the dossiers with which Western governments are confronted on a daily basis. Although with different positions depending on the governing parties, Western countries have identified China as an opponent with which to cooperate without being overwhelmed, maintaining relations that oscillate between competition and collaboration. There is, in short, a sort of common apprehension about the objectives that Beijing has decided to set itself, considering that the latter would be to present its effective and efficient political and economic model to the world, to replace a declining Western model.
While most states maintain an ambiguous attitude towards China, Italy has repeatedly expressed an explicit openness towards the dragon that has deeply worried the European allies and the United States. Under the first executive led by Giuseppe Conte, the Belpaese had taken a position of proximity to Beijing that had made explicit in joining the New Silk Road through the signing of a memorandum of understanding. Italy was the first and only G7 country to give its green light to the initiative. The memorandum was a symbolic document that signalled unofficial adherence to a project to expand Chinese political and economic influence in the world.
The pro-Chinese position of the government has undergone a wide review with the alternation of Mario Draghi at Palazzo Chigi. In recent months, the former banker has made a clear turn towards Washington and Brussels, moving closer to his traditional allies on numerous foreign policy issues, including China. On the other hand, it was Draghi himself who defined his executive as «convinced Atlanticist and Europeanist». And in some situations he has amply demonstrated this.
The approach to China of the Conte governments
With the advent of the first Conte government, supported by the Lega and the Cinque Stelle Movement, Italian foreign policy underwent, at least officially, a first real turn towards less traditional positions and, consequently, less conducive to the traditional alliances of Italy. The two parties in government, in fact, well before appearing at Palazzo Chigi, had expressed, with regard to foreign affairs, unconventional positions such as, for example, the proximity to Russia and China, that is, two countries outside the perimeter of the Atlantic Alliance. In fact, the leader of the League, as well as former Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini during the yellow-green experience had shown signs of relaxation and openness towards the Russian President Vladimir Putin, unpopular with Americans and Europeans, while Beppe Grillo, guarantor and mind of the Movement, was simultaneously shown “aperturista” towards the Chinese reality, seen as a great economic opportunity.
The manifestation of such positive feedback towards these two realities required the presence, in the palaces of power, of persons able to enter into contact with them. The opening to the dragon, for example, took shape with the appointment of Michele Geraci, an expert in China and professor of Finance at several Chinese universities, as Undersecretary of Economic Development with responsibility for international trade. The professor surrounded himself with other experts on the Chinese thing with the aim of focusing on the development of economic relations with China alone.
On the basis of such elements it is possible to clarify what were the intentions and objectives pursued by the first executive led by Conte: to give Italy a leading role in mediation between Chinese and Western positions, functional entry into the Beijing market in order to exploit its economic potential. This is an ambitious proposal, there is no doubt, but it is deeply unrealistic and shows a lack of knowledge of Chinese economic policy pursued over the years. In fact, the ultimate intention of Beijing has never been to encourage the entry of Western companies into their economy, if anything the opposite. The policy pursued by the dragon, in fact, aims at a one-sided economic integration, relating to the penetration of Chinese participation within the run-in and uncontrolled Western economies. In fact, on the basis of these assumptions, the failure of the Conte government’s plan, which has simply resulted in several unilateral acts of homage by Italy to China, could be explained, with the trade balance shifting further – and dangerously – in favour of Beijing.
The pinnacle of this very ambiguous relationship with Beijing was reached with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on the New Silk Road, a project of several thousand billion dollars, announced by Xi Jinping in 2013 in one of his most famous speeches, which provides for major infrastructure investments aimed at strengthening China’s economic link with the three continents concerned (Africa, Asia and Europe). The plan, of course, also has political implications. And it is the latter that worries the United States and the rest of Western Europe.
To tell the truth, the Italian enthusiasm for the Chinese New Silk Road was born well before the Conte government. The first Western leader to attend the Belt and Road Forum was Paolo Gentiloni, without considering the particular link between China and the various center-left leaders, such as Massimo D’Alema and Romano Prodi. The problem linked to the first experience of the Apulian lawyer concerns, however, the absence of a distinction between the voices “business” and “politics” (held instead by previous rulers). To understand this, it is enough to observe Xi Jinping’s journey to Rome, where, together with Di Maio, he signed a memorandum of very political and not at all economic value.
Even on the Russian front, in fact, things did not go as planned. The Italy of Conte, Salvini and Di Maio, just as with China, would have liked to be a privileged interlocutor between the West and the East, between Putin and the allies. In this case too, the rapprochement has resulted more in a hostile act towards the United States and Europe than in an attempt at dialogue. Indeed, many elements confirm the rapid deterioration of relations between the contenders. Moreover, the recent scandal of the pro-Russian spy confirms that the Russians’ cautious attitude towards the Italians has not changed, despite the “good intentions” of the Italian government.
The sudden change in Italian foreign policy has aroused the concern of the European chancelleries, which have begun to consider Rome as the “weak link” of the chain in the clash of power with China and Russia. In fact, although the Chinese are an important economic partner – and certainly better seen than Moscow – the strategic rivalry is strong and prevents a political deepening of relations. The signing of the memorandum on the New Silk Road turns Chinese economic penetration into political influence.
During the period in question, Italy took decisions which reflected the doubts of the allies such as the investment control mechanism at European level, a decision in favour of transparency and therefore in contrast with Chinese economic policies, or the failure to adopt a position in favour of Hong Kong and against the repression in Beijing. Also on the nominations to the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) Italy went very close to the conflict with the allies precisely because of the possibility of supporting a Chinese candidate.
Towards the end of the second Conte government, the pro-Russian and pro-Chinese attitude seems to have reassembled, repositioning itself on the traditional values and terms of the last Italian foreign policy. A normalization certainly started due to the change of government, which brought the Democratic Party to Palazzo Chigi, a political formation less extremist and more certainly more conscious of the international positioning of Italy and the need to maintain a certain credit even in the Western obnoxious chancelleries. The pandemic accelerated this process, as Giuseppe Conte, with unexpected diplomatic ability, managed to sew the Recovery Fund together with the European institutions, Spain, France and Germany.
The atlantism of Mario Draghi
The turning point came with the government of Mario Draghi, who since the beginning of his mandate has made choices that have clarified the international position of the country. The return to Europeanism, already started with the birth of the second executive of Giuseppe Conte, is reinforced by a convinced affirmation of pro-American Atlanticism. In addition to the position of the former ECB, there are elements never seen in recent years such as the conviction of having to oppose the Chinese rise together with the Americans and the relaunch of a three-way competition that includes the European Union, no longer an absent diplomatic subject but a participant in the international vicissitudes that are emerging in the new decade.
Despite the certainties of Mario Draghi, some see in his double fidelity to Washington and Brussels an obstacle to the affirmation of a truly sovereign and independent Europeanism from the American desires, that is able to say his in a world that is quickly returning bipolar. At G7, for example, he and the other European leaders basically succumbed to the flattery of Joe Biden, who managed to snatch the promise – which will hardly be kept in its entirety in the short term – to adopt a less relaxed attitude towards the Asian colossus, which has now become an enemy also for NATO, that is, military.
Apart from the various and varied assessments, the discontinuity is obvious. Mario Draghi has had the opportunity to see it even within his own national borders. The most important demonstration comes from a very recent event, that is the exercise of the “golden power” – the faculty of the government to exercise a power of participation on acquisitions in strategic fields – regarding a group of Chinese investments (Shenzhen Investment)which wanted to acquire LPE, a Milanese company of 70 employees operating in the semiconductor (chip) sector. For several years now, microprocessors have been the majority of a broad technological competition involving China and the United States. A competition that could quickly degenerate due to the shortage of these products, caused by a long crisis caused not only by pandemic disease but also by frictions between the administration of Donald Trump and the regime of Xi Jinping. The decision to intervene, by Mario Draghi, indicates a strategic choice in favor of an abandonment of the position obsequiante towards China assumed by previous executives.
To this decision are added others, taken in concert with France and other European countries, such as the will to block the acquisition of the manufacturer of heavy vehicles IVECO to the Chinese FAW, or the use of golden power to impose stricter conditions on the use of components produced by Huawei for the construction of the 5 G network.
Obviously, the Draghi government, like all European executives, does not want – and cannot – to antagonise an economic and commercial partner like China. From the microprocessor sector mentioned above to a trade balance that is increasingly smiling at the dragon, which for the first time, in February 2021, overtook the United States as the Union’s first trading partner, Beijing is now an integral part of the global economic mosaic and cannot be completely excluded from international plots as it was for the Soviet Union. That is why the promise that Biden has torn cannot be kept, at least in the short and medium term. The European Union, and with Mass Italy, prefers to continue to pursue the usual division between “business” and “politics” until an alternative strategy becomes necessary. Until then, the EU would do well to prepare a plan B.
For its part, the change of pace in foreign affairs is well established. The only question is whether such clear statements, although related to the period and the deterioration of Washington-Beijing relations, are functional to the pursuit of a strategy or only statements of principle. In the latter case, it is good to consider the risks above all.
INSIGHT AND SOURCES
- Draghi l’atlantista – Donatello D’Andrea – voce.com.ve