Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

Opinion | Did Xi Jinping Conquer Italy or Just Buy a Lot of Blood Oranges?

China, a country the size of a small continent, tends to leverage its heft by negotiating with other states one-on-one rather than through regional blocs. It has put this technique to use with Asean, the Southeast Asian association, using bilateral deals to divide members. Judging by the tone of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy and France over the past week, China has adopted the same approach in Europe — this time pitting the Italian government, which is anti-European Union, against the pro-E.U. French government of Emmanuel Macron, among others.

As expected, Italy signed a wide-ranging memorandum of understanding, or M.O.U., with China, becoming the first major Western economy to endorse Beijing’s colossal and controversial “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative. Most contentious, perhaps, was the Italian government’s decision to grant a Chinese state-owned company access to two ports, including one used by the United States Navy that is just 100 kilometers from NATO’s largest air base in the Mediterranean region.

But did Mr. Xi really get out of Italy what he came for?

Since June 2018, when the awkward motley coalition formed by the populist Five Star Movement and the extreme-right, anti-immigration League came to power, the Italian government has been as triumphalist as its politics have been amateurish and confused. The same goes for its recent dealings with Mr. Xi.

Essential terms of the M.O.U. — and of the 29 contracts signed along with it, which range from the frivolous to the reckless — are exceedingly vague. In fact, some commitments are inherently noncommittal.

Sicilian blood oranges are to be flown to China for distribution by the e-commerce giant Alibaba. The cities of Verona and Hangzhou have been twinned, as have the region of Langhe with its vineyards and that of Yunnan province and its rice terraces. New media partnerships, including with Chinese state news outlets, were announced — even as, on the margins of a meeting Friday between Mr. Xi and the Italian president at the presidential palace in Rome, a member of the Chinese embassy’s staff told an Italian journalist to stop “writing critically about China.” The M.O.U. mentions “synergies,” “reciprocal interests” and “collaboration” — notably regarding infrastructure, energy and telecommunications — while skipping over crucial details. (So, Chinese 5G technology or not?)

The risks for Italy seem plain, but there are pitfalls for China, too. A provision in the M.O.U. stipulates that either party can back out of the agreement by giving just three months’ notice. Another section states that the deal is not legally binding.

China, which is eager to sell more of its products in more markets, is urging the Italian government to finally push through a plan for a high-speed rail link between Turin, Italy, and Lyon, France. That project has been a bane of Italian politicians for two decades, repeatedly blocked by activists opposing its costs and its possible environmental impact. It remains an issue today, notably for a part of the Five Star Movement’s core constituency. China’s global ambitions will also have to contend with local politics.

For all the pomp surrounding Mr. Xi’s welcome last week — royal honors, mounted guards, a soul-rending performance by the tenor Andrea Bocelli — Matteo Salvini, one of Italy’s two deputy prime ministers and its interior minister, skipped the festivities altogether.

As Mr. Xi was arriving in Rome on Thursday evening, Mr. Salvini, who heads the League, left the city to campaign for regional elections in Basilicata, in the southeast. On Saturday, the day the M.O.U. was signed, he attended an industrial forum in Lombardia, his home province, where he said: “Do not tell me that China is a free market. Italy loses 60 billion euros a year to Chinese counterfeits.” As Mr. Xi was wrapping up his visit Sunday morning, Mr. Salvini posed with a cow and tweeted the picture with a kiss emoji saying “Happy Sunday from us.”

Here is Italy’s most popular politician spurning his own government’s most important international agreement to date. Why? Does Mr. Salvini want to claim plausible deniability should any of the deals Italy has signed with China go sour or displease voters?

If nothing else, his snubs and provocations suggest major divisions, or at least deep confusion, within the Italian government. It should concern China to have such a partner.

After the general elections last year, Italy struggled for several months to form a government, and the void allowed political novices to find their way to important positions. Among these is Michele Geraci, a former economics professor and trader who spent a decade in China. Today he is the main force behind Italy’s participation in One Belt, One Road, and under secretary of state at the Ministry of Economic Development, where he oversees international trade and heads a new China task force. Since assuming that post, he has said, “we are all Sino-Italians.” He has also asked his staff to forgo WhatsApp in favor of WeChat, a Chinese messaging app riddled with security loopholes.

Mr. Geraci’s Sinophilia couldn’t stand in starker contrast to Mr. Salvini’s “Italians first” slogan, yet both men are prominent League members.

That divergence is only one example of the messiness of Italian politics today. Against that backdrop, Mr. Xi may have come out of his visit to Italy looking like the only adult in the room. But that doesn’t mean he is in control or will get what he wants. If the Italian government is an unreliable partner for its own constituents, other Europeans and NATO, it may be for China as well.

Ilaria Maria Sala is an Italian journalist based in Hong Kong.

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