Italy’s Waltz with China: Business as Usual for Rome
In March 2019, Italy signed a comprehensive, though not legally binding, memorandum of understanding with China to join the Belt and Road Initiative. Acclaimed by Chinese President Xi Jinping as “the project of the century,” its primary and most visible rationale is geo-economic. Yet, its outreach also shows Beijing’s emerging global geopolitical ambitions and ambition to global primacy.
Rome’s decision is indeed noteworthy and will inevitably have symbolic and material consequences in the coming years. For China, Italy signing this memorandum is in itself an undeniable diplomatic victory. That said, one month after the agreement, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also announced Italy’s formal endorsement of the Japanese-led project of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region. Italy is thus supporting, at the same time, two competing — theoretically incompatible — projects. This diplomatic versatility is not a first in Italian history.
On the contrary, flexibility in dealing with friends and adversaries, and loose commitment to alliances, are the norm for Italy. As such, to grasp the actual meaning and implications of the Italian decision, it must be framed in the context of Italy’s historical approach to foreign policy. Ignoring this history makes it impossible to comprehend the real drivers behind the Italian moves and to assess its scope appropriately.
Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative
Italy was the first G7 member to join the Belt and Road Initiative officially. The formalization of this agreement inevitably sparked a significant debate. In Brussels and Washington, officials and observers started questioning whether this memorandum signaled a strategic shift in Italian foreign policy. Many speculated about what risks Italy will face. In Europe, some argued that Italy is bringing China into the heart of Europe. American observers commented with a mix of skepticism, hysteria, and alarm. The New York Times, noting that Italy gave the Chinese president a “royal welcome,” also added that Italy is structurally shifting away from the West. Bloomberg wrote that the Italian decision was a “snub to Washington,” while the Washington Post said that Italy was “defiant.”
Italy showed a significant interest in the Belt and Road Initiative since its inception, and former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni attended the first summit in 2017. Several motivations drive Italy’s interest in the initiative. A few of them are structural. Italian economic problems and renewed fears of a new and prolonged recession certainly played a role in pushing Rome to move ahead on this decision. The mounting perception of gradual, yet inevitable, American disengagement from the Mediterranean also played an important part. This geopolitical dynamic is raising serious concerns among many European and Mediterranean countries, and Italy is no exception.
In addition, there is a less structural element to take into account. Italian interest in engaging China more thoroughly also received a further boost as a number of individuals currently shaping Italian policy want Rome closer to Beijing. Several members of the “yellow-green” populist government — a peculiar alliance based on a “contract of government” between the right-wing League party and the populist Five Stars Movement — are in fact mainly focused on strengthening the Chinese dimension of Italian foreign policy. It is true that the League’s leader, deputy prime minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, expressed skepticism of the plan, noting that helping Italian companies investing abroad is positive, but foreign companies should not colonize Italy. He later added, while visiting Washington in June 2019, that on China and security he shares the views of Trump’s administration.
Yet the League’s Undersecretary for Economic Development, Michele Geraci, was the primary sponsor of this decision. Geraci has enduring relations with China and has continuously worked to strengthen this bilateral dimension since his appointment. Geraci is also considered one of the closest League members to the Five Stars Movement and its founding father and political mentor, Beppe Grillo. Geraci’s boss, Luigi Di Maio — who is the other deputy prime minister, minister of the economic development, and leader of the Five Stars — came on board with this Chinese-focused strategy. He was then the political heavyweight moving this strategy forward.
Interestingly enough, the supporters of the Beijing-Rome agreement initially claimed it was limited to trade and commercial ties. However, trade outside the European Union is an exclusive responsibility of Brussels, and not of E.U. member states. Indeed, as noted by Italian professor Alessia Amighini, one of the major Italian experts on the Chinese economy, the agreement had a precise foreign policy dimension and did not focus solely on trade. The conflict of institutional competences eventually pushed the Farnesina — the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — to claim its institutional responsibility for this type of accord. Italian diplomacy also played a role in counterbalancing the pro-Chinese push of many players in the government. While Rome’s choice is indeed astonishing, it can hardly be considered proof of a structural and coherent shift. Rome is not aiming to break away from the “West.” The steps that Italy took toward Japan and its Washington-blessed project after the formalization of its Belt and Road Initiative membership confirm this impression.
Endorsing the Opposite: Diplomatic Inconsistency or Historical Normality?
Only one month after signing on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Italy welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, announcing its official endorsement of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Abe arrived in Italy on April 24, in the context of his tour of Europe and North America in preparation for the June G20 summit in Osaka. During his visit, Abe called for deeper cooperation in the spheres of economy and defense. He appeared eager to prevent Italy from leaning too much in favor of China. Japan is chiefly concerned with Europe’s interest in Chinese 5G technology. The Italian government has often repeated that developing the 5G network is “a priority” and showed its willingness to work with Huawei. In addition, Tokyo feared that Chinese investments in the Italian port of Trieste would be yet another piece in China’s global military strategy — after a Chinese company bought the Greek port of Piraeus, China’s military vessels also started using it.
In early June 2019, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Enzo Moavero Milanesi paid an official state visit to Japan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the visit aimed at deepening “economic and cultural ties” and strengthening connections between Europe and East Asia through a series of investments in infrastructure consistent with the “the principles shared among European Union members and the system of alliances to which Italy belongs.”
Under normal conditions, these words and actions would sound obvious. Italy historically enjoys good relations with Japan and Tokyo is considered part of the “Western world,” from a geopolitical perspective. Abe’s project has the blessing of the United States, being a geopolitical alliance in favor of free markets based on three major pillars (Japan, Australia, India) considered essential to contain China in Asia. However, since it came weeks after Italy formalized its agreement with China, this endorsement made observers question Italy’s intentions. Italian analysts called the government approach chameleonic for its apparently erratic diplomatic behavior in Asia, noting a certain degree of confusion in dealing with Asian powers.
This stance can hardly be considered inconsistent, though, if seen through the lens of history. The government’s approach in dealing with China and Japan is very much in line with Italy’s historical global stance and its fragmented foreign policy decision-making process. In Asia, Italy is merely dancing its classic diplomatic waltz. At the beginning of the 20th century, out of frustration with Italy’s loose commitment to the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary and its rapprochement with the powers of the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France, and Russia), then-German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow labeled the Italian approach the “waltz politics.” This “consistent inconsistency” has always characterized Italian foreign policy since its creation as a nation-state in 1861.
The “Waltz” Metaphor
To understand the logic of Italy’s diplomatic versatility it is thus important to look back at the time when von Bülow made this comment and the diplomatic dynamics of that period. The metaphor of the “Waltz Turns” referred to Italian attempts to get closer to France and Great Britain between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. At that time, Italy wanted European powers to recognize Rome as an emerging Mediterranean colonial player, particularly in Libya. To achieve this aim, Italy sought diplomatic agreements with all the major players in Europe at that period, and its foreign policy was evolving. In 1887, it struck a deal with Germany, in 1902 with Austria. However, these two actors had been formal allies of Italy since 1882, when Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy established the Triple Alliance after growing anti-French sentiments in Italy pushed Rome toward Berlin. Italian views toward France changed following the so-called “Schiaffo di Tunisi” (Slap of Tunis) in 1881, when France formalized its protectorate in Tunisia with the Bardo Treaty in May, ignoring Italian claims in the region. The campaign launched by Pope Leo XIII to review the “Roman question” – a dispute over the sovereignty of those territories that Italy took over from the Pope at the time of the Risorgimento – also served to worsen anti-French sentiments, since Paris was the external protector of the Pope. These dynamics pushed Italy closer to Central European powers. However, several structural concerns prevented Rome from sticking more consistently to this alliance, particularly concerning Austria.
On the one hand, Italy’s growing focus on the Ottoman provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan made the support of Paris and London a valuable prize in Rome. On the other, the need to solidify national unity put Italy on a collision course with Austria, since Vienna still controlled Trieste and Trento. This structural contradiction slowly but steadily weakened the Triple Alliance. In fact, in the end, Italy entered World War I against Austria, with the aim of bringing Trieste and Trento under Rome’s sovereignty to complete its nation-building project.
The colonial issue was nevertheless essential in pushing Italy closer to France. After 15 years of growing tension with France, Italy started a process of rapprochement with Paris. Italy wanted to accommodate some of the requests of France and Great Britain to nurture its imperial ambitions. As such, particularly following an 1896 agreement with France, relations with Paris began to improve. The 1896 Franco-Italian agreement recognized the populous Italian community in Tunisia — around 55,000 people at that time — granting it greater autonomy and preserving most of the privileges accorded in the 1868 Italo-Tunisian treaty. In this context, Paris also accepted Italian ambitions in Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and the Fezzan. In return Italy reassured France about its hands-off policy in Tunisia and recognized the protectorate. In 1898, a new agreement put an end to the economic war between the two countries, and in 1902 the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Zanardelli government, Giulio Prinetti, exchanged notes with Paris negotiating a counter-insurance treaty. Rome promised its neutrality not only in the case of aggression — consistent with the terms of the Triple Alliance — but also in the case of Paris reacting to a “significant provocation.” This latest element added an essential dimension of ambiguity since the mechanisms to assess the circumstances in which Italy had to stick to neutrality were very unclear, to say the least. Italy also reached out to Great Britain to revive the Mediterranean Agreements of 1887, accords that were mediated by Germany.
It was these diplomatic moves that led Bülow to coin the metaphor of the “waltz turn.” In public, von Bülow called these turns “innocent,” joking that a husband should not get jealous if his wife dances the waltz with someone else once in a while. In private, he energetically addressed the Italian Ambassador to Berlin, Michele Lanza. The German chancellor was particularly familiar with Italian politics and culture, since he had been ambassador to Rome from 1894 to 1897, and he was also married to the daughter of two-time Italian Prime Minister Marco Minghetti. Since then, the reference to the waltz has been a constant element of the Italian international stance.
As such, Italy’s recent Asian moves must be seen against this broader background. Rome always tries to retain greater diplomatic freedom of action, and Italians constantly interpret alliances in a much looser way than many allies expect and desire. For historical, cultural, and geopolitical reasons, Italian foreign policy has long been particularly fluid. Consistent with this fluidity, Rome has often retained some freedom of action in dealing with strategic competitors or enemies of the European Union and NATO as well.
For instance, during the Cold War, Italy was not particularly critical of the Soviet Union, despite being an open supporter of the European communitarian project and transatlantic cooperation. Being home to one of the most prominent communist parties of Western Europe, Italy always tried to keep good relations with Moscow. For instance, in 1970, Fiat — Italy’s most important car manufacturer — started production in the Soviet Union city of Toyatti. The Soviets named the town, known as Togliattigrad in Italian, after the historical leader of the Italian communist party, Palmiro Togliatti. The late chairman of Fiat Giovanni Agnelli admitted the decision had no economic rationale in a speech in Detroit in 1970, but had geopolitical reasoning, as it had to bring about “more peaceful relations between the East and the West.” Agnelli was a fervent anti-communist, making it clear that this Fiat decision had a political rationale. Indeed, it seems likely it was somehow suggested — if not imposed — by the Italian government. The same versatility applied to Italy’s approach to the Mediterranean, from the Sigonella incident to the phone calls to tell the “Brother Leader” Muammar Qadhafi of imminent American raids against Bab al-Aziziyya, the military base that served as his residence, in April 1986. Although its preferences and actions have sometimes collided with those in Washington and Brussels, this inconsistency never put Rome outside of the transatlantic and European consensus.
The Logic of the Italian Asian Waltz
Italy’s supposedly erratic diplomatic behavior is neither new nor surprising. The motivations pushing Italy to join the Belt and Road Initiative will remain significant over the coming years. Rome’s relations with Beijing are thus inevitably set to deepen. The Italian decision is obviously remarkable, but more from a symbolic rather than an immediate geopolitical perspective. Nevertheless, in the emerging zero-sum game between the United States and China, even symbolic gains can be as significant as tangible outcomes. For China, the very warm welcome given to Xi and the signature of the deal were even more crucial than the somewhat generic contents of the memorandum, which some in China see merely as a first step to drag Italy into further negotiations.
For Washington, however, this development is a blow on several levels. The United States did not appreciate a major, formal ally warmly welcoming the president of its emerging global rival. Besides, the United States fears the Chinese project. The Americans increasingly perceive it as an attempt to replace, in the longer run, the current American-dominated liberal order. For Washington, Italy joining the Belt and Road Initiative is a problem, independent of how relations between Italy and China will evolve in the future.
Nonetheless, in the Italian perception, the Belt and Road Initiative agreement did not have the same relative weight that Beijing and Washington, for different reasons, attached to it. In fact, Italy’s subsequent endorsement of Abe’s project proves that Rome is merely playing Asian diplomacy according to its historical diplomatic playbook. A structural shift is not in sight, at least not yet. Endorsing two projects theoretically incompatible is simply business as usual for Italian diplomacy; it is basically a way to keep options open. Participation in the Belt and Road Initiative does not entail any strategic or systemic swing in its global political preferences. Italians will retain a role in both projects and see how they evolve. At a later time, each plan could be either pursued or abandoned, according to the evolution of Rome’s interests and needs and the changes in the international landscape. More than 100 years after von Bülow’s remarks, Italy remains true to itself and its consistently inconsistent foreign policy, in Asia and the world.
Dario Cristiani is a political risk consultant working on Mediterranean countries and a Visiting Fellow at the International Centre for Policing and Security (ICPS) at the University of South Wales (UK). He writes regularly for the Jamestown Foundation on Mediterranean issues. He received his PhD in Middle East & Mediterranean Studies from King’s College, University of London. You can follow him on Twitter at @med_eye.