Italian prime minister fostered warmer relations with Beijing but his resignation could give a boost to the Northern League led by China critic Matteo Salvini.

The resignation of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte spells uncertainty for the country’s warmer ties with China.

Conte, a staunch defender of closer relations with Beijing during his 14 months in office, resigned on Tuesday amid a stand-off with Northern League leader and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a vocal critic of China.

Tensions had been brewing between the ruling coalition government of the Five-Star Movement, the Northern League and Conte, an independent serving as prime minister.

Salvini had suggested earlier this month that Italy hold new elections, and moved for a vote of no confidence against Conte.

Addressing parliament on Tuesday, Conte said Salvini was “irresponsible to initiate a government crisis”, and announced his intention to resign.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella accepted Conte’s resignation. If a new government cannot be formed, snap elections will be held.

Relations between China and Italy have improved under Conte, with Italy signing a memorandum to join China’s Belt & Road Initiative despite warnings from the United States.

Conte also met Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei in April during a visit to China and assured Ren that the company would not face discrimination in Italy’s 5G market – again, despite warnings from Washington. Salvini has said he opposes Huawei having access to Italy’s 5G networks.

Lucrezia Poggetti, a research associate at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, said that China would not likely be a major issue in Rome but that the political turmoil could result in a shift in Italy’s position on contentious issues like Huawei.

“Salvini … has recently adopted a tougher line on China and Huawei,” she said.

But Poggetti added that views on China varied within the Northern League.

“We should not forget that the architect of Italy’s China-friendly policy shift … is Michele Geraci, a Northern League member who was personally picked by Salvini as undersecretary for economic development,” she said.

“While Salvini has adopted tougher rhetoric on China, he has so far not done anything concrete to prevent Rome from pursuing closer political ties with Beijing.”

Regardless of its China policy, Italy would likely have a much closer relationship to the United States if Salvini gains greater say. In June, he said Italy was the US’ “most solid” ally in Europe.

Shi Zhiqin, head of the China-EU relations programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said Salvini and the Northern League lobbied Conte to limit the scope of the Belt & Road memorandum before it was signed.

But no matter who comes out on top in Italy, the overall relationship between the two countries would not be harmed, Shi said.

“The relationship with China is a good one, and Italy, like other southern European countries, is looking to China to help bolster economic growth,” he said.

Moreover, the coalition government is clearly not arguing over the China relationship. I don’t think the Belt & Road will become a key political issue moving forward. The Northern League, for example, is more focused on issues like migration and Italy’s relationship with the European Union.

“For a long time, Italy’s politics have been full of constant change, even since the end of the second world war. This won’t disrupt bilateral ties.”