Italy the Beachhead for CCP’s Invasion of Europe

February 24, 2021 Updated: February 25, 2021


Churchill called Italy, the “soft underbelly” of Europe, meaning the invasion of the continent in World War II should be done there first by the Allied forces.

Italy has also received other titles, such as the “Sick Man of Europe.” This title has been passed among several countries, but Italy has been a common recipient of this inglorious title due to its anemic economic growth. High taxes, low economic growth, high unemployment, have led to an economy perpetually in the doldrums since World War II. Italy has never quite re-established itself from the peak of its Roman magnificence.

The Second World War axis with its northern ally ended miserably for the country and squelched its totalitarian leader’s attempt to re-establish its once world-renowned aura. A grand self-image combined with empty pockets created a willing candidate to be the first European nation to sign up for the CCP Maritime Silk Road Project.

Although a country showed up with investment funding in return for signature of a contract that may or may not have been translated properly, Italy jumped. And perhaps once again, Italy is acting as the first beachhead for the “invasion” of Europe, this time unfortunately by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Ports and Information Technology Networks

The port arrangement model previously used in Kenya, Sri Lanka, and other places was a natural starting point for the CCP’s influence operations in Italy. A major port such as Trieste in the top northeast portion of the country was an early entrant as a port partner program. It is ironic that Trieste was the same immediate region in which British and American military forces skirmished with Soviet and Yugoslavian Communists attempting to cede the territory away from Italy at the end of World War II.

Smaller ports also are getting the attention of the Chinese. Vado Ligure, a more diminutive port on the top northeastern portion of the Italian peninsula has also received significant CCP attention with the port deal there. “Vado Ligure is the largest fruit logistics hub in the Mediterranean” is the best reason it appears on the surface for the CCP interest (China is a net food importer), but perhaps there are additional reasons.

As usual, Huawei is part of the vanguard of CCP influence operations. Although making initial progress in entering the Italian market, things became rocky by fall of 2020. Huawei was blocked by Italy in October 2020 along with Bulgaria—major wins for then Secretary of State Pompeo and the “Clean Network” initiative, well-constructed programmatically as well as by moniker. With the change of Administrations in the United States, it remains to be seen if this State Department initiative becomes enduring or the seemingly hardening European stance begins to go wobbly.

It is too early to tell on how long this rejection as a network provider will last, but likely Huawei will continue to seek soft spots and access points in Italy through lesser measures such as phone sales, routers, and other mobile devices. Although not as good as controlling the network, these network endpoints and components are important steps also for the ability to see the data traversing the networks.

An Aviation Manufacturing Hub Venture

A joint venture has been in operation for several years at Pomigliano d’Arco, just outside of Naples, Italy. This facility is Alenia Aermacchi’s biggest plant in southern Italy, part of the long standing, successful Boeing international supply chain.

It participates in the production of the Boeing 787, producing about a “14% share of (the) 787’s airframe,” according to the firm’s website. Alenia is part of the larger Leonardo multi-national company which focuses on aerospace, defense, and related market sectors. Leonardo also owns Leonardo DRS in the United States led by former Deputy Secretary of Defense, William J. Lynne III.

What is also curious about the Alenia facility outside of Naples is the relation of both Russian and Chinese interests, apparently in the same facility with Boeing. On Oct. 26, 2018, China, through the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd. (COMAC) signed with Leonardo (parent of Alenia) to develop the CR929, essentially the Chinese equivalent to the Boeing 737.

Although the Leonardo listing mentions COMAC, COMAC has also created a joint venture with United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) of the Russian Federation and the CR929 is really the China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation Co., Ltd. (CRAIC) CR929. This can get quite confusing.

A check of the Consolidated Screening List (CSL) of the Department of Commerce does display UAC as a listed company. This means that there are concerns of the U.S. Government toward UAC. COMAC did not come up directly in the CSL, but close variants did.

The civil-military fusion efforts of the CCP are adept at constantly creating new or slightly differently named companies, so the coincidental nexus of COMAC/UAC with Leonardo/Alenia, which is simultaneously performing Boeing 787 should be considered one hop away or closer to Boeing intellectual property (IP).

This means a listed Russian company and a questionable Chinese Company are working with a trusted Boeing partner, potentially in the same facility, potentially on the same network. The CSL list is good, but there is a lag time between variants of incorporation, done willfully to evade being memorialized on the CSL, and the CSL being updated to catch these willful evasions.

There has been an ongoing attempt by COMAC (really CRAIC) to obtain Boeing IP to support the development of the CR929s immediate predecessor, the CR919, as identified by a cybersecurity firm named Crowdstrike, which identified this activity in approximately the 2010–2015 period.

The 737 is essentially the crown jewel of American commercial airline exports. If CRAIC could destabilize the 737-market position, they would be able to enter the top tier of providers to the airline industry.

The possible co-location of Boeing network endpoints so physically close to CRAIC personnel should be of great concern to any cybersecurity or export control risk analysis. There’s also another concerning angle: a possible insider threat situation, an expression in cybersecurity describing a trusted personality who has network access who may have played a role in all of this. The personality’s name: Arturo D’Elia.

Arturo D’Elia, a former cybersecurity director within Leonardo, was imprisoned in December 2020 in regards to possible unlawful access and removal of data from the Leonardo networks. An analysis by Reaqta further established the exfiltrations to be significant, contrary to initial reporting by Leonardo. There are additional Italian investigations going on related to significant bribes involving multiple Leonardo personalities.

In summary of all these events, once again Italy seems to be the entry point for a (soft) landing on the European continent, the CCP is relentlessly using its Italian beachhead as an influence operation, and President Biden’s resolve to deter CCP adventurism is unclear, which is a green light to the CCP to push harder.

Retired Col. John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now, Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense. On Gab: @ColonelRETJohn. On Telegram: Daily Missive

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Mills
Col. (Ret.) John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now—Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense.