Italy’s new government takes a different stance on China

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Italy has elected its most right-wing government since the end of World War II, and China watchers are expecting a different kind of relationship between Giorgia Meloni, who could become Italy’s next prime minister, and Beijing based on her comments on Taiwan during the campaign.

Diplomatic issues in Asia are not usually the focus of political debate in Italian elections, but analysts noted that Meloni made a rare statement on Taiwan ahead of the election, speaking out against China’s military threats against the island. She also said she will encourage bilateral contacts between Italy and Taiwan, something Beijing strongly opposes.

In July, Meloni tweeted a statement ahead of the Taiwan elections. That post showed a photo of her and Taiwan’s representative in Italy, Andrea Lee Sing-ying. Meloni called Lee an ambassador. The tweet continued by saying she “always stands by those who believe in the values ​​of freedom and democracy.”

Taiwan and Italy have no formal diplomatic relations. Like many other nations, Italy maintains diplomatic relations with China. Beijing claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and resists official contacts between Taipei and other nations.

Last week, in an interview with Taiwan’s official Central News Agency, Meloni said that her party, the Brothers of Italy, would join democratic countries in condemning China’s military threat to Taiwan, and that the European Union would do all its diplomatic and using political means means exerting pressure to avoid cross-strait conflicts.

FILE – Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is pictured at the president’s office in Taipei, Aug. 22, 2022.

Taiwan as a bridge

Meloni also noted that she will deepen exchanges with Taiwan in the fields of culture, tourism, public health, scientific research and the semiconductor industry, despite differences in political philosophies with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

Meloni has not specified in which areas she differs from Tsai’s philosophies. Tsai is Taiwan’s first female president and Meloni is set to become Italy’s first female prime minister, but Tsai is widely known to support same-sex marriage, something Meloni opposes.

At a regular briefing this week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin expressed his confidence that ties with Italy would remain strong, but urged “certain people” in Italy to acknowledge the “highly sensitive nature” of what Beijing is saying called the “Taiwan issue”.

“The Taiwan issue is a purely internal matter of China that does not tolerate foreign interference,” Wang said. He also warned against “sending the wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”

Guido Alberto Casanova, an associate researcher at the Italian Institute for International Policy Studies, told VOA Mandarin that Meloni’s anti-China stance as a nationalist speaks to Italy’s extreme right of the need to protect Italian industrial interests from Chinese takeovers. But their position is also aimed at building their international credibility, he said.

“She has a very controversial background. She comes from a post-fascist era of Italian politics; it mutated to the extreme right. … So she needs to reassure people both in Europe and in the United States,” he told VOA in a phone interview.

“The hot topic, at least in the United States, is defending democracy and human rights. Of course, Taiwan is the key. Therefore, it needs to present itself in solidarity with American support for Taiwan because it needs to win approval,” he said.

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and then-Prime Minister of Italy shake hands after signing a memorandum in support of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative at Villa Madama in Rome March 23, 2019.

FILE – Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and then-Prime Minister of Italy shake hands after signing a memorandum in support of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative at Villa Madama in Rome March 23, 2019.

“Belt and Road” in balance?

The Italian government has long maintained friendly relations with Beijing and has rarely commented on China issues. Chinese state media reports on Italy have been mostly positive.

However, changes in Italy’s political landscape and the dramatic shift in attitudes towards China around the world and among Italian citizens could impact Rome-Beijing relations, analysts said.

One area of ​​concern under the new leadership is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure project that Italy has previously backed.

Italy is the only G-7 country to have signed a memorandum of understanding on the BRI with China. It was signed by then Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and China’s President Xi Jinping in 2019 during the Chinese leader’s visit to Italy. The document is valid for five years and remains in force unless objected by either party.

The Italian government had hoped the deal with Beijing would boost Italian exports to China. However, some observers said China is more interested in building the country’s infrastructure and buying up companies than boosting trade. For her part, Meloni has already expressed skepticism and called the signing of the agreement with China a big mistake.

“If the memorandum is renewed tomorrow, I hardly see the right political conditions,” she said in a Sept. 23 interview with Taiwan’s state-run Central News Agency.

Francesco Sisci, a longtime political analyst on China affairs and a visiting professor at LUISS University in Rome, told VOA Mandarin that the BRI has practically stopped in Italy.

“The Italian government has promised a lot, but very little has been implemented – in fact, almost zero. The memorandum is completely blank,” Sisci said in a phone interview with VOA. “The Belt and Road Memorandum is a failure for both Italy and China. Both sides had a big misunderstanding, so the document should not have been signed.”

Although Meloni is expected to become Italy’s next prime minister, it will be weeks before the new Italian government is formed.

Bo Gu contributed to this report.

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