China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, recently visited Budapest, Munich, Paris and Rome for talks with European governments. Filippo Boni assesses what the tour told us about China’s strategy for engaging with the EU.
On Tuesday 20 February, two moments epitomised the divide in today’s world politics. Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, was due to travel to Moscow, while US President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv, a few days before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The symbolism was powerful, and it crystallised the different positions of China and the United States not only on the conflict in Ukraine, but on the present and future of the international order.
The Moscow visit would be the final leg of a European tour during which Mr Wang visited Paris, Rome, Munich (for the Munich Security Conference) and Budapest. It was his first visit abroad since becoming Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, following the 20th Party Congress in October 2022. In many ways, the visit was a potent reminder of the renewed centrality of Europe in China’s foreign policy calculus.
Italy was the second stop of the trip. The visit came nearly four years after he visited Rome in March 2019, alongside President Xi Jinping, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative. At the time, the non-binding memorandum between Italy and China was a massive diplomatic win for Beijing, which had managed to convince a G7 country, the first and only to date, to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative.
The agreement came during the time of Italy’s populist coalition led by the Five Star Movement and signalled an unprecedented opening to China in Italy’s foreign policy posture, raising concerns in the US and among European allies. Since then, with a pandemic and three governments in Rome in between, the enthusiasm in Italy-China relations has progressively faded, both under Mario Draghi and under the new government of Giorgia Meloni.
While in Italy, Mr Wang met with the Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani, and the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella. High on the agenda of both meetings was the renewal of the abovementioned memorandum (which automatically renews after five years unless one of the parties withdraws), as the Italian government has signalled its intention to review the agreement. In the words of the Chinese Ambassador to Italy, the agreement “has greatly enhanced the strategic level of China-Italy relations, and this beneficial asset of our relationship will produce more positive results.” The Ambassador also noted that “China is willing to import more Italian high-quality products” and “support Italian companies to expand their market shares in China”.
The appeal of greater business opportunities has yet to materialise. According to the latest data from the Italian Trade Agency, Italy’s share in China’s market has remained constant (and relatively low) at around 1.1 per cent since 2020, dropping to 0.99% in 2022. The total value of bilateral trade (in USD) has grown from 55 billion dollars in 2020 to nearly 78 billion dollars in 2022, but with a trade imbalance in China’s favour whose exports to Italy increased by around 18 billion dollars while Italy’s exports to China went up only 4 billion dollars in the 2020-22 period.
China’s interest in having Italy renew the memorandum was also visible in an interview that China’s Ambassador to Rome gave to Italy’s main independent news agency, ANSA, ahead of Mr Wang’s visit. Italy and China were defined as “natural partners” with the Ambassador adding that “I believe that two great nations like ours [Italy and China] have the ability and wisdom needed to make the right choices by seconding the flux of history, so that such a cooperation and amity could become ampler and ampler”.
Regaining lost ground
Beyond the clear message directed at the new government on the memorandum, the choice of ANSA as a platform for this interview is also interesting. Following the signing of the memorandum in 2019, ANSA entered into a content-sharing agreement (now terminated) with the Xinhua news agency, which entailed Xinhua-generated content being translated into Italian and published on ANSA’s main website, with the editorial responsibility resting with Xinhua.
As I have analysed in recent research, ANSA was an important platform for China to convey some of its key messages (e.g. China as a responsible partner, and the strength and effectiveness of the ‘Chinese model’ in dealing with Covid-19) to Italian audiences, especially during the pandemic. Overall, the choice of Italy as one of the stops on Mr Wang’s European tour signals China’s desire to regain some lost ground (and status) on the European continent, and to convince European countries to pursue their own, largely commercial, interests as opposed to those of the US.
Such a wider, systemic message about the international order was also visible in the readout of the meeting between Mr Wang and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. This explicitly mentioned that China would “strive to promote the democratisation of international relations and the multi-polarisation of the world”, a clear signal directed at the United States and its EU partners.
A similar message was delivered by Mr Wang at the Munich Security Conference, where he stated that “we need to think calmly, especially our friends in Europe, about what efforts should be made to stop the warfare; what framework should there be to bring lasting peace to Europe; what role should Europe play to manifest its strategic autonomy”. Overall, Wang Yi’s message was primarily targeted at European countries in an attempt (so far unsuccessful) to drive a wedge between the EU and the US.
For more information, see the author’s recent (open access) paper in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations