Italy-China relations have experienced significant shifts since the beginning of President Xi Jinping’s mandate, partly following the differing “Chinese views” of governing coalitions over those years, and a widespread outdated perception of the need to adapt bilaterally to the so-called “China’s rise”. Those swings have resulted in a very confused perception of Italy’s “China policy” on the part of both China itself and Italy’s European partners. In the process that eventually led to Italy’s signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2019, it became clear that no bilateral approach would pay, as Italy’s bargaining power vis-à-vis China also depended on the extent to which such an approach was pursued through the EU (as outlined in the EU’s “2019 Strategic Outlook on China,” enforced on 12 March 2019, when the Commission issued a decalogue of actions suggested to member states in their relations with Beijing, under the significant name of “China Strategy”).
The Covid-19 pandemic brought an unexpected twist to Italy-China relations, in directions that have further added to the confusion that had prevailed earlier. The Italian government had tried its best to leverage support for the MoU, assuring public opinion that the agreement would have helped Italy fight the pandemic. However, China’s “mask diplomacy” – i.e., the “advertisement” of donations of medical equipment – was found lacking as a means of restoring China’s international reputation as a responsible power, since some of those transfers actually proved to be standard sales under business contracts.
As the first wave of the pandemic gradually abated in Italy in the summer of 2020, developments like this meant that the general awareness of China’s business objectives and wider political goals to increase its presence in Europe was heightened. When the virus hit Italy, plunging the country into a deep public health crisis, among the most serious issues that emerged when the virus started circulating was the insufficient stock of sanitary equipment, including masks and ventilators, the production of which had been heavily concentrated in a few countries over the last decades, with China being among the top producers. This is when China started leveraging one of the pillars of the BRI – that is, the “Health Silk Road” – in an effort to expand soft power/public diplomacy tools further into Europe.
This context provides a better understanding of changing perceptions of China in Italy, as evidenced by the end-of-the-year annual expert surveys ISPI conducts to investigate changes in the way international politics is perceived nationwide, which offer some empirical data to root discussions about Italy-China relations in 2021. Two questions from the survey, in particular, aimed to assess the responses of the Italian expert community to the role of global actors in terms of growing influence and overall threatening power. Figures 1 and 2 below show China’s changes in the annual percentage of responses to these two questions between 2015 and 2020. Even at a first glance, the opposite direction towards which these two trends move is striking. Expert perceptions of China’s growing influence in the international system, for instance, had been annually increasing at a rapid rate up to 2017. Afterwards, the trend stabilized at around 60 percent of respondents and only registered minor annual 1 to 2 point variations (Figure 1).
Conversely, the annual percentage of Italian experts identifying China as the major global threat showed minor variations up until 2018, but then the annual percentage of respondents increased from 6 percent to 27 percent, eliciting a dramatic spike in overall results (Figure 2).
As a benchmark, it is worth noticing that North Korea, which had been steadily at the top of the ranking, in contrast experienced a steep downfall, passing from 25 to 12 percent of the responses, while Turkey spiked at 14 percent from 3 percent in 2018.
Above all, what these surveys show is that the Italian expert community’s awareness of China’s role in the world has not been acquired as a result of major political events (notably, the well-known MoU), as some would claim, but resulted from an extensive process of discovery and realization. Data also stress that surveyed experts have moved away from the stereotype of a never-ending rise for China, but rather recognize that the country has in fact already risen and, in the meantime, adopted a much more assertive (when not confrontational) approach vis-à-vis the liberal order. In turn, the “China’s rise” narrative, still warmly supported by some scholars, also helps explain why since 2018 Italian experts have increasingly identified China as the most threatening global power. Indeed, as the pretense of China still being a “new”, “inexperienced” power in the international system faded, concerns about the country’s global pre-eminence and, in particular, in the Global South got the upper hand.
2021 should be a time for Italy to look for a common position within Europe, especially as the German approach to China, which pushed for the signing of the “Comprehensive Agreement on Investment” in late 2020, has found little support from other European member states, most notably France and Spain. We are entering into a favourable juncture for taking a leaf out of China’s own book and replacing short-termism with a long-term strategy, possibly seeking the support of other Mediterranean powers.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and ISPI.