All roads lead to Beijing. Italy steps up efforts to foster bilateral ties with China

Multilateralism (duōbiān zhŭyì,多边主义) and the new ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (B&R) (yīdài yīlù, 一带一路) have been the pivots of the Italian president Sergio Mattarella’s state visit to China in February.  The last president of Italy who headed to the Asian country was Giorgio Napolitano, in 2010. Back then, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was a completely different country.

Under the leadership of Hu Jintao, the central government of Beijing was still promoting slogans such as ‘Peaceful development’ (hépíng fāzhǎn和平发展) and ‘China’s dream’ (zhōngguó mèng,中国梦) was only waiting for its moment to arise. The PRC, today, is indeed a more dynamic actor in the international scenario than she was seven years ago.

While the B&R is Beijing’s new tool to export its renovated vision of globalisation with Chinese features, multilateralism is what has emerged from the last World Economic Forum, where president Xi Jinping turned the tables: ‘There cannot be a winner in a trade war’.[1]In Davos, the Chinese president announced that Beijing, now more than ever, is ready to lead the liberal world in a new bumpy era, threatened by the rise of a new wave of protectionism.

Although from the Chinese side the long-term events can be hardly foreseen, one thing looks more predictable from the Italian perspective. Italy is certainly eager to more proactively shape its role along the B&R, as a geostrategic pole in the Mediterranean.

Despite what several Chinese analysts have expressed regarding their concerns with the inconsistent GDP growth and the migratory waves due to unemployment, Beijing is not sceptical about its future ties with Italy. Thanks to the similarity of the Italian economic structure to the one of China, massively based on the small-and-medium enterprise, Chinese investors are encouraged to engage with Rome.

The ‘strategic partnership’ between the two countries is extremely prosperous in economic terms.

If Italy will be able to update and expand its infrastructural system, economic gains might further increase. Rome should especially invest in the ports on the Adriatic Sea so that Beijing could increase the volumes of goods shipped towards Western Europe. According to the Italian Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, Graziano Delrio, the government is also investing in other ports, Taranto and Geneva. An additional million and a half TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) would be worth a billion and a half in revenues.

By doing so, the Chinese would be encouraged to distribute more evenly their trading flows to the Mediterranean Basin, of which Maghreb is another potential region for Chinese investments. It is important to bear in mind that COSCO, the Chinese shipping companies, controls the portal infrastructures in Greece. Beijing, therefore, could dedicate the Greek ports to the trade with Eastern and Central Europe. This element is also highly relevant for defining another pattern of action. Most of the time, Chinese capital is used for green or brown-field investments, as in the latter Greek case, where they moved rather competitively after Athens launched a series of privatisation reforms. Quite exceptionally, the PRC is confident that, vis-à-vis Italy, it will be able to maintain a stable peer-to-peer cooperation. However, it is not only a matter of economic cooperation.

During his institutional mission, Mattarella spent around one week in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Chongqing visiting historical sites such as the Terracotta Army or the tomb of Matteo Ricci, notorious Italian Jesuit who travelled to China during the XVI century. This itinerary proves a crucial factor: history has a pivotal role in the Sino-Italian bilateral relationship. While at the Fudan University of Shanghai, President Mattarella delivered his lectio magistralis to the international audience, largely composed of Italian students. Today, many young enthusiasts pick China as their destination for an academic exchange, and, not surprisingly, this was praised by Mattarella in his speech: ‘You, young students, are our best hope for a future of mutual understanding, peace, and wealth for our countries and our people’.[2]

The delegation that has accompanied President Mattarella included Minister of Foreign Affairs, Angelino Alfano, and the already mentioned Graziano Delrio. On the same day President Mattarella and President Xi met, the Italian delegation, following the ‘4th Italy-China Business Forum’ concluded a total of 13 agreements for an aggregate value of roughly €5 billion. Some of these ententes include a strategic agreement between Ansaldo Energia and Shanghai Electric for the production of turbines type H. Fincantieri, represented by its CEO, Giuseppe Bono, concluded a memorandum of agreement with China Shipbuilding State Corporation for the construction of two cruise ships for China with an option of additional four. Roberto Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency, reached an agreement with the China Manned Space Agency concerning cooperation on human space flight activities in the Chinese space station, etc. Beijing does not simply want to invest in the ‘Made in Italy’, but also wants to foster long-term collaboration with Italian enterprises, much appreciated for their know-how.

There is yet another important element emerging from the state visit. While improving its bilateral relations with China, Italy still regards the U.S. as an important ally. As Mattarella declared during an interview with the CCTV, China’s state television broadcaster, it is still too early to judge the policies of President Trump. His mandate, in fact, has ‘just started’. Paraphrasing President Xi’s words, the Italian President expressed his desire not to witness any ‘trade war’, praising the advantages of free trade, which has always found a strong supporter in Washington.

From a ‘transatlantic perspective, Italy could have a gravitational effect thanks to her geographical location.

The Mediterranean, in the next years, might become a strategic point of convergence not just for China and Europe, but also for the American and the Asian continent. In a historical moment where the unity of Europe is also challenged by the risks of foreign investments, Chinese FDI included, Rome has a unique chance. Now that Italy is part of the Security Council as Non-Permanent Member and will host the G7 in a couple of months in Taormina, it could launch a clear message: controlling globalisation is not a chimaera. Multilateralism can work if all parties are intentioned to pursue the interests of the global community.

Concerning the Italian situation, there are two necessary conditions Rome should give the priority. Improving both its political stability and the domestic economy could be a major improvement. By doing so, the country would not simply provide fertile ground for FDI, as the effective implementation of political reforms would enhance its credibility, but also stimulate the national entrepreneurship and boost the ‘Made in Italy’ appeal.

Federico Brembati

MSc Degree Candidate in International Affairs, Peking University and London School of Economics


[1] (dǎ màoyì zhàn de jiéguǒ, zhǐ néng shì liǎng bài jùshāng, 打贸易战的结果,只能是两败俱伤)

[2] ‘Voi studenti rappresentate la nostra migliore speranza in un futuro di comprensione, pace e benessere per i nostri Paesi e i nostri popoli.’

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