Italy caught between US and China in new Cold War

During the Cold War, Italy was considered a border country — not only because it was physically close to socialist Yugoslavia, but also because it was the NATO member and Western nation with the most powerful domestic communist party. The Italian Communist Party was almost a government force and was practically, in the light of day, financed by the Soviet Union.

With a potential new post-coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Cold War now looming, Rome again represents the “limes” (the Latin word for border), but this time the dispute is between the US and China, with Russia relegated to the background.

That the current Italian government has a particular sympathy for Beijing has been evident since March last year, when Rome decided to officially join the Belt and Road Initiative. However, repeated recent declarations by the leaders of the Five Star Movement (M5S) made the US and NATO antennas stand up once again. It seems that M5S — numerically the most important member of the coalition government — has shifted the collaboration with China from a purely commercial axis to a strategic alliance with a focus on cooperation (with Beijing at the helm) in the field of telecommunications (5G) and dual-use technologies. The party has even prefigured military collaborations, with one of its leaders, Alessandro Di Battista, who is known for his sympathies with Iran, explaining that “China will win the third world war” and, therefore, Italy should agree to a stronger alliance with Beijing.

These statements have annoyed and embarrassed the Democratic Party, M5S’s government partner, and Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini. They have also infuriated the opposition, led by Matteo Salvini’s League party, which has launched a tough campaign against China, holding Beijing responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic and accusing it of wanting to buy Italian strategic assets at a reduced price. The controversy is so heated that the Lombardy region, where the League is strongest and is the governing party, has launched legal action demanding economic compensation from China.

China’s so-called “mask diplomacy” has also sparked a debate, with many suspecting that — behind the prominent media campaign regarding “generous Chinese donations” and the foreign minister’s obsessive declarations of thanks — there is the will to offer the Italian 5G network as a dowry to Huawei in exchange for Chinese face masks.

The anomalous situation certainly attracted the notice of the American ambassador, who posted on Twitter in March: “Our U.S. military, U.S. citizens and U.S. companies have been participating without a megaphone on a consistent partnership with Italy that will ultimately end this crisis we are both facing.” And, in an  interview with Corriere della Sera last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “For Italy, we are the ones who do and will do more. We work with China, but demand transparency.”

These were important words, but the pro-China propaganda was still overwhelming. With parliament deserted due to the COVID-19 emergency, an important role in raising the alarm was played by COPASIR (the parliamentary state security committee), which is chaired by an opposition MP, Raffaele Volpi. He has constantly denounced the risk of giving hostile non-NATO powers access to Italian strategic assets and has presented a report that strongly discouraged the adoption of Chinese technology in the 5G network. Volpi explained: “It is not worthwhile to put all our sensitive information in the hands of Beijing for the sake of €600 million ($652 million).”

The cry for help from the large part of Italian society that is afraid of becoming a Chinese satellite persuaded the US to use its “megaphone” a little more. After President Donald Trump’s decision to allocate $100 million in aid to Rome to deal with the pandemic, the declarations on Italy by leading figures within the US administration have multiplied.

Aside from Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper gave an interview to La Stampa that was published on its front page on May 4. He said: “Italy hosts more than 30,000 US military members and families for our common security. We consider Italy to be one of our closest and oldest allies.” He also spoke of attempts to use the COVID-19 emergency to infiltrate Italy. “I have repeatedly called for Russia and China to be transparent with information during this crisis. I would also recommend their donations to other countries be of quality and come without strings,” he said.

Many suspect that there is the will to offer the Italian 5G network as a dowry to Huawei in exchange for Chinese face masks.

Max Ferrari

And, about a possible new Cold War with China and Russia, Esper said: “Unfortunately, Russia and China are both taking advantage of a unique situation to advance their own interests. Russia provided medical assistance to Italy but then attempted to use that assistance to drive a wedge between Italy and its allies with a disinformation campaign… Huawei and 5G is a prime example of this malign activity by China. This could harm our alliance.”

He concluded: “Reliance on Chinese 5G vendors could make our partners ’critical systems vulnerable to disruption, manipulation and espionage. It could also jeopardize our communication and intelligence-sharing capabilities. To counter this, we are encouraging allied and US tech companies to develop alternative 5G solutions.”

Meanwhile, the crisis is progressing and, in the end, we will see if ideological positions or the trade balance that sees the US a far more important partner than China will take precedence. In the interim, a big order has arrived from across the Atlantic: The US Navy awarded the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri a $5.5 billion contract for the construction of 10 new warships. This is an important signal from an industrial, commercial and also geopolitical point of view.

  • Max Ferrari 
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