Italy after BRIexit: The Indo-Pacific Newcomer

On March 23, 2019, Italy became the first G7 member to officially sign up for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Five years later, Italy has decided to leave this project. As Italy’s BRIexit happens, Rome is also embracing a new, and more pro-active, Asian approach, based on two pillars: Japan and India. However, while Italy is formally exiting the BRI, the upcoming Italy-China Business Forum, set to take place in Verona on April 4, 2024, also underlines Rome’s nuanced approach to maintaining at least amicable ties with Beijing. This partnership should be based on the 2004 Global Strategic Partnership concept, which was nevertheless agreed in a somewhat diverse context; a completely different geopolitical era, well before the “assertive turn” that China’s foreign policy undertook under the current leadership of Xi Jinping. 

In 2019, the BRI represented the most significant attempt that the populist Italian government of that time, made of the 5 Star Movement (M5S) and the League, sought to leverage this moment to pivot Italy’s foreign policy in a new direction. This push, nevertheless, failed, and Italian foreign policy did not change much despite the ambitions. As for the BRI, also previous Italian governments were interested in the project. However, it was under this new populist executive that Italy adopted a more resolute approach and decided to formally join. 

The Ministry that oversaw this agreement, the Ministry of Economic Development (Ministero dello Sviluppo Economico – MISE) was run by Luigi Di Maio, who was also deputy prime minister and political leader of the M5S. At that time, he was a strong advocate for a shift in Italy’s historical orientation, particularly regarding China. However, it was primarily one of his undersecretaries, Michele Geraci, who pushed significantly to join the BRI. Geraci was an undersecretary for the League, but he was also considered very close to the M5S founder, Beppe Grillo, considered one of the most pro-China members of the Italian establishment. Geraci himself is historically one of the most vocal advocate of closer Italian-Chinese relations.

This development was seen as a major diplomatic and political success for China, with some seeing Italy as Beijing’s Trojan Horse in Europe. The optics were decidedly favourable for China, even though the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was significantly less ambitious than Beijing’s initial proposal, as the MoU was not legally binding, and its terms were remarkably vague. Some Italian institutional actors intervened to moderate the scope and the impact of the MoU. Indeed, from a material point of view, the BRI MoU has been largely inconsequential, as noted by Italy’s top China expert Francesca Ghiretti.

However, over the past five years, there have been a generalized change of heart in the Italian political landscape regarding China. This rethinking started as the Covid-19 crisis broke out: China’s aggressive attempts to capitalize on the rifts existing at that time between Italy and its historical allies; its propaganda and disinformation attempts pushed many Italian political actors to change their positions. Since then, successive governments have adopted a more cautious approach to China. Against this backdrop, it is not a case that there is a strong continuity between the right-wing Giorgia Meloni’s government and that of her predecessor, Mario Draghi, on this specific issue.

American pressures were not stranger to Italy’s decision. Indeed, Washington has always been worried about pro-China views of some part of the Italian political establishment. Meloni’s first trip to Washington accelerated Italy’s decision on its participation in BRI. This issue was obviously at the top of the agenda in the bilateral meeting that the Italian President of the Council of Ministers held at the White House with President Joe Biden in July 2023.

A few days after the visit, Italy’s Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, one the key leaders, as well as ideologues, of Meloni’s party, Fratelli d’Italia (Fdi – Brothers of Italy) said in an interview to Il Corriere della Sera: “The choice to join the Silk Road was an improvised and wicked act, made by the government of Giuseppe Conte, which led to a double negative result” although he warned that the issue today is “to retrace our steps without damaging relationships. Because it is true that China is a competitor, but it is also a partner.” In response, the Global Times – the official international media outlet of the Chinese Community Party – published two articles following Crosetto’s words, warning Italy that “quitting the BRI might become Italy’s regret” blaming this decision on the pressure mounting from “the US and the EU.”

However, even when the decision on Italy’s BRI withdrawal was not official yet, it was evident that Rome was heading in a different direction regarding its approach to China and generally towards Asia. The incumbent Italian government has indeed promoted a fresher approach to the Indo-Pacific region, building on some dynamics that the Draghi’s government was already encouraging. Rome, a relative newcomer to this region compared to its European counterparts like the UK, France, and Germany, is yet to unveil an official Indo-Pacific strategy. Nonetheless, in January and March of last year, Italy elevated its relations with Japan and India to “strategic partnership” status. 

Along with Tokyo, Rome is also cooperating in the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), an innovative “minilateral initiative”, inclusive of the United Kingdom, to develop a sixth-generation stealth fighter. Italy is also enhancing its military presence in the region. In April, the Italian Navy’s second Thaon di Revel-class PPA, Francesco Morosini, commenced a five-month deployment in the Asia-Pacific region, docking at fifteen ports in fourteen countries. This deployment aims to uphold the principles of the freedom of navigation and the respect of the international law of the sea while carrying out naval diplomacy and maritime security missions. As of June 2024, Italy also plans to deploy its flagship aircraft carrier Cavour in the area.

Italy’s strategic initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region align with various diplomatic and political motives. Firstly, withdrawing from the BRI and fostering closer ties with Japan and India has an obvious Transatlantic meaning: it underscores Rome’s commitment to maintaining its traditional foreign policy alignment, remaining consistent with the moves and preferences of the US and European partners, an effort significantly appreciated by the United States especially after the misunderstandings caused by the BRI adhesion. Secondly, even though Italy is not a global military power, it does hold global influence in other sectors, such as trade, soft power, and cultural appeal. 

 

Therefore, as the Indo-Pacific region gains increasing global significance, it is vital for Italy to establish a presence there. Last, Italy’s Indo-Pacific projection should also be viewed from a Mediterranean perspective. For Italy, the dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region are intricately linked to developments in the broader “Enlarged Mediterranean” region. Thus, bolstering its presence in the Indo-Pacific could also advance Rome’s Mediterranean objectives. This could be especially crucial as the Mediterranean region may also gain increased global geopolitical significance as a connector between the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific realms.

 

Italy’s official BRIexit has merely formalized a transition that has been underway for a while already. The current government already invigorated this shift by announcing the enhancement of Italy’s relations with Japan and India. After the 2020 upheaval, Italy acknowledged that cultivating economic ties with China should not compromise its security or traditional alliances. From this point of view, the Covid-19 crisis was a pivotal moment for the entire Italian political landscape, revealing the risks of excessive dependence on Beijing. Furthermore, China’s predatory economic activities and unfair practices have prompted a more cautious stance in Italy towards viewing China as a “market Eldorado” for Italian products. Therefore, Italy will seek to bolster its presence in Asia in a different way. By becoming an “Indo-Pacific actor” and fostering ties with Japan and India, Rome has adopted a diplomatic stance which aligns more consistently with its historical alliances and partnerships, even if Italy is a newcomer in this space.

[Photo by Italian Government, Presidency of the Council of Ministers]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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