Italy’s Coronavirus Outbreak Puts Spotlight on China Ties

Italy’s Coronavirus Outbreak Puts Spotlight on China Ties
A man wearing a protective mask walks by a deserted Piazza di Spagna in central Rome, Italy, on March 12, 2020. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)
Cathy He

The worsening coronavirus outbreak in Italy has led its government to re-evaluate its relationship with Beijing and align more with Washington, an expert said.

Almost a year after Italy became the first G-7 country to sign on to the Chinese regime’s flagship foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as One Belt, One Road)—drawing criticism from its Western allies—the country’s initial handling of the outbreak indicated a shift in relations.

“The outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan has led the Italian government to reassess its approach to China, while also sending a message to the Trump administration,” Nicola Casarini, senior fellow and head of research for Asia at Rome-based think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali, told The Epoch Times in an email.

Casarini said the current center-left Italian administration, which is different from the populist government that signed up for the BRI in March 2019, has utilized the outbreak to further its ties with Washington. Italy was the first Western government to announce a halt of flights from China, and its flight ban is currently set for the longest period among Western countries, lasting until April 28, he said.

“This measure can be explained by the willingness of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and the Health Minister Roberto Speranza to present themselves as trusted transatlantic allies—something that traditionally helps in Italy if someone wants to make a political career,” Casarini said.

Despite this early effort to contain the disease, Italy has since found itself to be the worst-hit country outside of China, where the outbreak originated. In February, it was found that the virus had been circulating unnoticed in northern Italy. From there, the virus spread to the entire country. Italy now has more than 12,000 infections and 800 deaths, and the country has been placed under lockdown.

Italy–China Ties

Italy’s decision to join the BRI in March 2019 sparked concern from the United States and Western allies.
Beijing’s BRI, a massive infrastructure investment project aimed to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe through a network of railways, ports, and roads, has been criticized for saddling developing countries with debt burdens they cannot repay. Meanwhile, Washington worries that the plan is also designed to strengthen China’s military influence and spread technologies capable of spying on the West.

The White House National Security Council warned Italy at the time that endorsing the BRI “lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment and will bring no benefits to the Italian people.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas echoed that sentiment, saying at the time that some countries that “think they can do clever deals with the Chinese, they will come down to earth with a bump and find themselves dependent on China.”

Italy has defended its decision, with Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio last month saying that it signed on to the initiative for “commercial reasons” and “economic advantages,” Bloomberg reported.

But according to data compiled by the RWR Belt and Road Monitor, which tracks Chinese investments under the initiative, Italy hasn’t attracted many projects in the past year, with the exception of a deal between Jetion Solar (China) Co. and Eni SpA to invest about $2.2 billion and develop new solar projects.

A Chinese plan to develop the port at Trieste also hasn’t gotten off the ground, Bloomberg stated.

Meanwhile, Italy also has continued to run a trade deficit with China, which in January stood at $2.4 billion euros ($2.7 billion), according to preliminary data released in February by Italy’s statistics agency Istat.
Since the outbreak, economists expect the country’s already struggling economy to head into a recession by the end of the first quarter, with critical tourism and luxury industries particularly hard hit.

Regime’s PR Push

Recently, the Beijing regime has donated medical supplies to Italy and sent a team of medical experts to assist in local containment measures.
These measures, analysts say, form part of a campaign by the regime to frame itself as a global leader in disease control efforts and detract attention from criticism that its initial cover-up of the outbreak allowed the virus to spread abroad. This “positive” propaganda push includes recent statements by Chinese officials suggesting that the virus didn’t originate from China and merely first broke out there.

Casarini believed that after the crisis subsides in Italy, the Chinese regime will “begin pouring money (through investments) in Italy, in particular in the industrialized north more affected by the epidemic,” in an attempt to boost bilateral relations.

“In the medium-to-longer term, however, Rome-Beijing relations will continue to go through highs and lows, depending not only on their bilateral ties, but more importantly on the evolution of Italy-USA relations,” he added.

Casarini suggested that how Italy and other European countries will approach relations with the Chinese regime in the wake of the outbreak depends on how “politicians and the media present the case.”

He said that “if the blame is put on China and its regime which has withheld critical information at the beginning of the outbreak, thus allowing the virus to spread worldwide,” then European countries are likely to harden their stance toward the regime. However, if the regime-promoted narrative of “fighting together the common enemy” takes off, then the reverse may happen.

“Admittedly quite remarkable to countenance at this stage, but it could indeed happen, especially if China begins pouring more money into Europe,” Casarini said.

Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.
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