Xi’s message to Mattarella. On Tuesday, the Chinese President offered his condolences to his Italian counterpart for the passing of his predecessor, two-time President Giorgio Napolitano. He also said he was ready to boost Italian-Chinese relations – and made no reference to the Belt and Road Initiative, which the Italian government is about to exit.
- President Xi stressed he holds the development of China-Italy relations “in great consideration” and is “ready to collaborate with President Mattarella to promote a healthy and stable development of the China-Italy global strategic partnership in such a way as to favour the two countries and their peoples,” according to Xinhua.
Delving deeper. Beijing has long touted the BRI as a key element of its relationship with Rome since it became the only G-7 capital to adhere to the plan in 2019. Chinese diplomacy has been pressuring the current Italian government to stick to the cooperation framework since the latter signalled it was leaning towards exiting. In this context, the fact that President Xi avoided referring to his pet project means the Chinese Communist Party has chosen to give up the pressure and put a good face on the matter.
- His reference to the “global strategic partnership” echoes Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani’s recent trip to Beijing, where he met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and touted this formula (launched in 2004 between the two countries) as the conduit for “opening of a new season” of “reinforced cooperation.”
- Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni also emphasised this when she met with her Chinese equivalent, Li Qiang, on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in New Delhi.
How it will play out. Rome has been working to achieve a soft exit and avoid economic backlash. As part of this strategy, the Italian government will bring the matter to Parliament and act upon its vote. It’s likely this will happen after the Belt and Road Forum in mid-October, which will celebrate the project’s first ten years, so as to avoid embarrassing Beijing.
- Italy is invited to the forum – but the state of bilateral relations and the announced presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin are making it challenging to identify the best way for Rome to participate.
How China is coping. Despite the efforts to underplay Italy’s exit, Beijing officials are struggling to mask their discontent. Here is what the Chinese Embassy in Italy told LaPresse on Tuesday regarding the BRI and the prospects for relations between Rome and Beijing: “On the basis of further deepening the global strategic partnership, the two countries should develop the ‘Silk Road spirit’ through peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit, so that China-Italy relations will not only benefit the two peoples, but also contribute to peace, stability, prosperity and development in the world.” Ambassador Jia Guide spoke similar words in an interview with the daily La Stampa.
- It will be up to President Mattarella to reiterate the importance of the bilateral relationship, based on a global strategic partnership, when he visits China in January 2024 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Marco Polo’s death.