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Italy’s China chill runs deeper than fears over the coronavirus


By Alan Crawford  /  Bloomberg

Almost a year after Italy broke with its US and European partners to sign up to China’s influence-extending Belt and Road Initiative, relations between Rome and Beijing risk deteriorating rather than getting closer.

The anticipated economic boost for Italy has yet to materialize, with its trade deficit with China widening further last year, and if Rome’s intention was to generate goodwill with Beijing, the government undermined that effort with its decision to halt flights to China over worries about the spread of the coronavirus.

As Italy endures its own deadly outbreak, Italian President Sergio Mattarella has made a show of reaching out to Chinese nationals in an attempt to quash anti-foreigner sentiment — earning praise from Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and easing some political tensions.

However, in economic terms, the Belt and Road memorandum’s vagueness and a change of government since Italy signed it have cooled the drive for more integration.

Investments have disappointed, while Italy has hardened its stance on China’s human rights record and on restricting Huawei Technologies Co access to 5G data networks.

“The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in quite a bit of discrimination against Chinese nationals or ethnic Chinese residing in Europe — that’s not unique to Italy,” said Jan Weidenfeld, a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, Germany.

However, recent Italian criticism of China over Hong Kong and the real possibility of a partial ban on Huawei “were much more detrimental to the relationship from a Chinese perspective,” he said.


When Italy became the only G7 nation to sign a Belt and Road accord in March last year, it drew criticism for choosing Beijing at the expense of its Western allies. German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas said at the time that if some countries “think they can do clever deals with the Chinese, they will come down to earth with a bump.”

Italy’s government has learned that lesson the hard way. The country signed up to Belt and Road for “commercial reasons” and “economic advantages,” Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio said during a panel discussion at last month’s Munich Security Conference, acknowledging that adjustments needed to be made, such as ensuring that Chinese companies abide by European rules and standards.

A breakdown of Chinese investment as compiled by the RWR Belt and Road Monitor, which tracks Chinese investments globally, suggests Italy has failed to attract many concrete projects in the past year.

Jetion Solar (China) Co’s deal with Eni SpA to invest about US$2.2 billion and develop new solar projects was a rare exception.

Others were less eye-catching. They include a railway technology center in Turin to be built with Italy’s Blue Engineering, which is 80percent owned by China’s CRRC; an agreement between Italy’s UniCredit SpA and the Export-Import Bank of China; and a direct flight operated by Sichuan Airlines between Rome and Chengdu.

A Chinese plan to develop the port of Trieste has so far failed to happen.

More concrete progress was made in the area of mobile networks. In July last year, Huawei announced a US$3.1 billion investment plan over three years that aimed to create at least 1,000 jobs in Italy.

Five months later, Chinese provider ZTE Corp completed a joint “5G ready” network rollout across Italy with Italian operator Wind Tre


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