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Italy was the first European country to be plunged into crisis when the virus travelled across the world — but the EU was caught short and failed to offer sufficient help. Beijing readily offered its assistance in Brussels’ absence, especially as the number of Covid-related deaths in Italy surpassed those in China. The Chinese government and private donors flew 31 tons of essential supplies and equipment, including respirators, masks and medication, in March last year.
It was a diplomatic move that made headlines just as Italy was butting heads with the EU.
During the crisis, Rome’s suggestion of using “coronabonds” to borrow collectively was rejected while reports that Germany blocked a Chinese shipment of masks to Rome added to the growing EU tensions.
This assistance from Beijing only increased reports of China pushing a wedge between Italy and the EU.
Italy was already the first country in western Europe which openly supported China’s ‘New Silk Road’ infrastructure project.
The intended $1trillion (£718billion) road, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative, is a proposed global trade network hoping to connect Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe through a series of ports, railways and tunnels.
Italy’s support for China’s ‘vanity project’ provided ‘Beijing with bridge to EU’
Former Italian PM Conte with Chinese President Xi in 2019
Italy showed its support by signing a non-binding memorandum of understanding when President Xi visited Italy in 2019.
At the time, The New York Times commented: “The symbolism is striking — a powerful China drives a crack in the economic alliance that once dominated the globe and delivers a major blow to a Trump administration that has been critical of the Belt and Road Initiative.”
German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, claimed Chinese President Xi Jinping told Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte that their two nations were the “cornerstones of a New Silk Road of health”.
The then Italian Prime Minister Mr Conte said the memorandum with China was in line with the EU strategy to bolster infrastructure ties between Europe and Asia.
He said: “In fact, it promotes it as no other member state has done so far in its dealings with Beijing.”
Commentators believe Rome is hoping that such an initiative will revive its economy and establish better access to China’s market.
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Chinese officials handing over Covid-19 supplies to Italy last year
However, French President Emmanuel Macron had urged for the EU countries to have a “coordinated approach” towards China at the time, hinting at the bloc’s frustration that Italy had acted independently.
Academic from Renmin University, Francesco Sisci, also told The Guardian: “It’s not so much about Italy wanting to do a deal with China per se.
“The real problem is that no political homework has been done.
“Italy, a bridge to Europe, and, objectively the US, spoke to China without consulting either.
“Fractured relations with the EU and US won’t serve Italy well, or China.”
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Biden’s inaguration in January as the President of the US
The EU agreeing to the CAI with China in December
The US representatives also believed the initiative was being used by China as political clout.
The then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China was “trying to leverage its economic presence in Italy to serve its own strategic purposes”.
American outlet, Foreign Policy, also claimed: “The US sees Italy as the European weak link in the power struggle with China after it became the first G7 country to sign up to Beijing’s Belt and Road trade and infrastructure investment plan last year.”
Garrett Marquis, a spokesperson for the White House’s national security advisers under the Trump administration, urged Italy not to legitimise China’s “infrastructure vanity project”.
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He tweeted: “Endorsing BRI lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment and will bring no benefits to the Italian people.”
However, Italy did give in to US pressure to ban the Chinese telecoms giant, Huawei, from contributing to its 5G mobile phone network last year — unlike Germany.
Germany’s new 5G security plan allows Huawei to become part of the domestic telecoms networks, despite warnings from the US that the organisation could pose a threat to its security.
It’s worth noting that Germany reportedly led the charge on the EU’s new investment deal with China, which was signed in December — again, ignoring US pleas to wait until Joe Biden had sworn in as President.
The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment stunned the US, as it seemed to indicate that the whole EU was leaning away from its alliance with the States and towards the growing superpower of China, despite Washington’s warnings.