Italy and China have healthy relations and clearly, there is little cultural nor ideological animosity between two countries whose political predecessors once book-ended the ancient silk roads. By contrast, in the early 1970s, the US did not have formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and both countries found themselves on the opposite side of both the broader Cold War and the war in Vietnam.
But when US President Richard Nixon visited China for talks with Chairman Mao Zedong in February of 1972, it represented a watershed in global relations which itself paved the way for increased China-US economic relations after the Reform and Opening Up of 1978.
Later this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Italy. In many ways, today’s European Union is coming to represent the same lost economic potential that the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact became infamous for in the 1980s.
At a time when China embraced innovation, the USSR and its European allies were nearing the end of the road for an economic system that had grown too inflexible to sustain the desires of the people. But unlike China, the former USSR and many of its allies went from bad to worse in the 1990s, whilst for China, the gradual and evolving process of Reform and Opening Up continued throughout the 1990s and indeed, it continues to this day as China looks to build a moderately prosperous society in all respects.
Italy is among the EU countries that have been particularly bogged down by a Brussels mentality that tends to look inward rather than outward and one which tries to cling on to old methods rather than embrace progress and reform. This is one of the many reasons why Italy plans to sign a memorandum of understanding with China in respect of Italy’s desire to join the Belt and Road initiative. As such, Italy will be the largest European nation yet to embrace Belt and Road and crucially, one with some of Europe’s most strategically located coastlines in respect of international trade.
In this sense, when Xi shakes the hands of the Prime Minister of southern Europe’s largest nation, it will truly be a watershed moment. Just as Nixon and Mao allowed ping pong diplomacy to open Chinese and American hearts and minds to one another, perhaps in Italy, the noodle diplomacy which has seen a signature Chinese foodstuff become one of Italy’s major foodstuffs after centuries of east-west trade, will lead to the kinds of meaningful deals that were signed by Chinese and US political and business leaders after 1979.
At a time when the US is looking ever more inward due to the protectionist policies of Donald Trump and whilst the EU is also facing multiple internal crises, the fact that Italy seeks to look outward by embracing Belt and Road is symptomatic of a change that is long overdue in Europe. This change must be one that looks for economic partnerships that are sustainable and dynamic in a wider world that prioritises a global win-win mentality over parochial Eurocentrism.
As Italy’s new government is itself a coalition of the left and right, Italian politics itself is transforming as internal win-win solutions are best achieved by pooling the best of all vibrant political factions, rather than engaging in endless struggles between extremes. This is a further indication of Italy’s desire to transcend the old ways of looking at economics, trade and political leadership, just as Belt and Road looks to transform the nature of global trade in a manner that prioritises development over competition, human-centred initiatives over those which only favour the elite and models of sustainability that can avoid stagnation as well as boom and bust cycles.
Thus, while Xi’s visit to Italy is certainly not the first visit by a Chinese political leader to Europe, it is nevertheless a watershed moment. Just as Nixon’s visit to China laid the foundations for Reform and Opening Up, Xi’s visit to Italy can help lay the foundation for much-needed reforms and global openness throughout Europe.