China and Italy: the Belt and Road amid face-mask diplomacy

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Ludovica is an incoming Masters student with a prior degree in Law, who will be studying the International Relations programme at King’s. Her academic interests range from the diplomacy and its different strategies to the impact of the religions on foreign policymaking. She is also interested in Middle-East and Asia region and their fast development of the last decades.

The uncertain atmosphere caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted geopolitics the world over. The pandemic has undoubtedly, in several cases, adversely impacted bilateral relations between governments. From an Italian perspective, it is increasingly evident that the health emergency has called into question the relationship between Italy and China, which has gone largely unscrutinised in the mainstream media thus far. Before discussing this issue in detail, A brief overview of Sino-Italian diplomatic relations would perhaps be useful.

 Italy and China seem to be two countries with vastly different cultures- which perhaps explains their varying perspectives on international politics. Relations between them have come under greater international scrutiny following the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)[1] that the two countries signed in March 2019 in order to strengthen political and economic cooperation in line with the objectives of the “Belt and Road” initiative (BRI)[2] . The agreement stipulates that the parties will work towards sustainable development at a regional level while developing a deeper mutual trust in order to carry out collaborations such as people-people connectivity, financial collaboration, trade and freer trade and, last but not least, for the establishment of a zone allowing for the freer movement of logistics and transport- a “New Silk Road[3]. Italy is the first G7 country to join the China’s infrastructure-commercial project[4] between Eurasia and China which was launched by Xi Jinping in 2013[5].

It is an undeniable fact that involvement in the BRI programme has raised Italy’s profile among Beijing’s policymakers as China’s major commercial and political partner in Europe. Indeed, supporters of this line of action may go further, pointing towards Italy’s potential role later on as a mediator between China and the EU[6]. China in particular holds a vested interest in Italy, given the country’s strategic significance. Italian ports such as Genoa, Savona, Trieste and Venice would allow China to expand her maritime influence in the Mediterranean[7].

 In this context, China and Italy have developed a peculiar relationship, with the intention behind Chinese aid to Italy being viewed from various different perspectives in Rome’s corridors of power. “COVID-19 Diplomacy” and “face-mask diplomacy” have thus acquired a place in Europe and indeed, Italy’s political parlance regarding Chinese medical aid to the country, with several Italian analysts viewing them as representative of China’s soft power. In short, vast sections of Italian society perceive Chinese medical aid during the COVID-19 pandemic as Beijing’s way to acquire global political hegemony[8]. Such sentiment is particularly visible within certain elements in the Italian media, who have repeatedly brought up the issue of the country’s “Sinicisation” as a result of her involvement in the BRI and the medial aid from China. Yet a more holistic analysis would suggest that such soft power is not a means to dominate world politics, it is instead China’s way of deflecting criticism from the international community regarding its opaqueness with respect to the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Secondly, we should remember that the aid has been strategically addressed. China is aware of the need of the consensus of its international political partners for the success of the BRI. What many politicians and scholars contest is the idea of China ​​as “healer” and no longer a “plague spreader”. Despite such varying points of view, what is sure in terms of geopolitical analysis is that in a moment of strong need for Italy and in lack of European subsidies, China has demonstrated an incomparable promptness in dealing with the situation and this has also been inevitably the result of the economic relations between the two States.

Only by looking objectively and realistically at wider horizons it is possible to evaluate Beijing’s[9] overall foreign policy strategy and to speak of “COVID-19 diplomacy” with very specific political objectives. Certainly it is not the first time that solidarity has become a diplomatic tool, in history there have been numerous examples, for example the Marshall Plan for European post-war reconstruction.

International relations are complex and there is no one only way to interpret them, but it is necessary to look at the complexity of the relationships between the different partners. In this case we cannot underestimate the significance of the China-Italy dichotomy. If China represents a giant of the world economy from which Italy can benefit greatly, on the other hand the European country is the meeting point between the two continents that can make a real difference in the ambitious Belt and Road project.

Image Source- https://www.wwno.org/post/global-effort-control-coronavirus-outbreak


[1] The memorandum of understanding is a non-binding agreement of a technical nature that is widespread in institutional relations and between private companies too, in which the parties reaffirm their converging interests and establish lines of future cooperation.

[2] The mutual commitment of China and Italy for the project was made through the signing of 29 agreements, including 19 institutional agreements and 10 political ones, for a total value of approximately € 2.5 billion.

[3] The ancient silk road was born during the Tang dynasty to facilitate trade between Europe and Asia, especially of precious goods, and it had as its last stages on one side Rome and Xi’an on the other.

[4] In 2015 Italy was already among the 57 founders of the Asian infrastructure investment bank (Aiib) which is the bank that deals with the financing of all infrastructures by sea and by land for the silk road.

[5] The first idea was announced by President Xi Jinping during a visit to Kazakhstan and Indonesia: in those occasions he expressed his will to create an extensive network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings. The extension of the project involves 65 countries. Elin Hofverberg, Italy: A new silk road between Italy and China – the Belt and Road Initiative, (The Library of Congress 20th May 2020) https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2020/05/italy-a-new-silk-road-between-italy-and-china-the-belt-and-road-initiative/.

[6] Alessia Amighini, Cina e Italia: sfide e opportunità di una partnership discussa, ( Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, 21st march 2019), https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/cina-e-italia-sfide-e-opportunita-di-una-partnership-discussa-22615 .

[7] Beijing holds a 49.9% stake in the Vado Ligure terminal; the China Merchants Group has invested in the construction of a logistic platform in Trieste which makes the Adriatic coast the arrival point for goods coming from the Suez Canal and then destined for the European and Central European market through the Brenner.

[8] Soft power is a political persuasion technique devised in the nineties by Joseph Nye in the United States which is opposed to hard power characterised by the use of military force. China has made intelligent use of it by promoting its culture, values and institutions by exporting them all over the world as an expedient to increase influence on the world scene and foster international relations.

[9] Giulia Sciorati, “La diplomazia delle mascherine”: il nuovo soft-power della Cina, (Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, 29th march 2020), https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/la-diplomazia-delle-mascherine-il-nuovo-soft-power-della-cina-25554.

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