The Belt and Road initiative in Italy

Five case studies

by Beatrice Gallelli (Volume editor) Francesca Ghiretti (Volume editor)
©2023 Edited Collection 168 Pages
Open Access
Series: Global Politics and Security, Volume 9


Italy’s officially joining the China-led Belt and Road Initiative sparked a fierce debate. By analysing five fields of cooperation, the volume sheds light on whether the bilateral agreement has brought about an intensification of bilateral collaboration as wished by the Italian government at the time and whether the concerns around it have materialised. The contributions will show that potential risks coexist alongside unsubstantiated ones.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Half Title
  • Series Page
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Figures
  • Tables
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • 1. The debate on the MoU
  • 1.1. The view from the United States
  • 1.2. The views from Europe
  • 1.3. The debate in Italy
  • 2. Contextualising the MoU: Italy’s attempts to enter the court of China
  • 2.1. The state of Italy–China trade and investment relations
  • 2.2. The historical background to the MoU
  • 3. Book structure
  • References
  • Chapter 1: The Maritime Belt and Road: Italian ports
  • 1. The leading Chinese companies operating in the Italian port sector
  • 2. The ports of Genoa and Trieste
  • 3. Before March 2019
  • 3.1. The Western Ligurian Sea Port Authority
  • 3.2. The Eastern Adriatic Sea Port Authority
  • 4. The Memorandum of Understanding of March 2019
  • 5. After March 2019
  • 5.1. The Western Ligurian Sea Port Authority
  • 5.2. The Eastern Adriatic Sea Port Authority
  • 6. Conclusions
  • References
  • Chapter 2: China–Italy: An analysis of financial cooperation
  • 1. Intesa Sanpaolo
  • 2. UniCredit
  • 3. Cassa Depositi e Prestiti and SACE-SIMEST
  • 4. China’s commercial and development banks in Italy
  • 5. Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter 3: One belt one voice: Chinese media in Italy
  • 1. Tell China’s story well: Beijing’s strategy to control international narratives on China
  • Beijing’s new approach to external communication
  • The internationalisation of China’s media
  • 2. China and Italy media relations
  • 2.1. Chinese media’s footprint in the Italian news environment
  • 3. The 2019 MoU: An analysis of Rai and Ansa’s agreements
  • 3.1. Rai
  • 3.2. Ansa
  • 4. Conclusions: Assessing China’s penetration in Italian media
  • References
  • Chapter 4: Silk road academic connections
  • 1. Italy–China cooperation in higher education and research
  • 1.1. Italy’s place in China’s higher education and scientific research strategy
  • 2. The Confucius Institutes in Italy
  • 2.1. Backlash against the Confucius Institutes
  • 2.2. Pushback against Chinese influence on campuses
  • 3. The interplay of academia and business
  • 4. S&T cooperation
  • 5. Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter 5: The internationalisation of China’s scientific power
  • 1. China’s rise as a global scientific powerhouse
  • 1.1. The international component of China’s innovation system
  • 1.2. Scientific cooperation along the Belt and Road
  • 2. Scientific cooperation between Italy and China
  • 2.1. The reach of the Chinese innovation system into Italy
  • 2.2. The BRI and the 2019 S&T agreements: A breakthrough or natural evolution?
  • 2.3. The consequences of the 2019 agreements and the controversies of Chinese technologies in Italy
  • 3. Conclusion
  • References
  • Conclusion
  • 1. Unsubstantiated risks
  • 2. Actual risks
  • 3. Final remarks
  • References


Table 2.1: UniCredit subsidiaries and their assets

Table 2.2: Summary of Panda bonds’ issuance in Europe

Table 2.3: Italian companies operating in China financed through Panda bonds


Lorenzo Kamel

In 2013, when Xi Jinping launched his plans for a connectivity plan to connect Eurasia, few would have imagined that what came to be known as the Belt and Road Initiative would become such a polarised initiative.

Although the contours of the project were not clear, for several years, and since its launch, the BRI was widely welcomed. The European Union started a series of collaborations between the Chinese BRI and European projects in the frame of the EU–China connectivity platform. Then, criticisms and concern became increasingly common.

Part of the backlash on the BRI is directly linked to the initiative itself and some of its characteristics, such as the lack of transparency, unclarity over labour rights, as well as social and environmental repercussions. However, large part of the criticism the BRI has received is due to the political implication of the so-called rise of China, and some related growing tensions with the US.

While China was becoming more authoritarian and less adherent to international laws (as further confirmed by the repression perpetrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), its growing global influence has casted a shadow over any foreign policy initiative that would feed Beijing’s strength and influence.

The rising to power of the former US president Donald Trump coincided with new and amplified concerns related to China’s relative gain of power and translated some of those into the so-called ‘Trade War’, and, later on, into a war of narratives that later on will be fuelled by the pandemic of Covid-19. It must be said that the US has roughly 800 military bases outside of its national territory (China only 4) and the countries that refuse Washington’s forces on their soil are nevertheless often surrounded by them. On top of this, the concerns expressed by the Trump administration were hardly new. And yet, under the Trump’s administration they found an ‘undiplomatic expression’ that escalated the tensions between the two countries, further polarising the debate.

Against this drawback, it comes as no surprise that the signing of the Memorandum of Understating (MoU) by the Italian government and the People’s Republic of China attracted much criticism, sparking a heated debate. This volume sheds light on what the consequences of this political action are. Although the MoU between Italy and China has been widely discussed, no thorough study has been conducted so far to assess its outcome. The Belt and Road initiative in Italy aims to fill this void, and does so by providing a thorough analysis on the results of one of the most controversial memoranda of understanding ever signed.


Beatrice Gallelli, Francesca Ghiretti and Lorenzo Mariani

On 21 March 2019, at 6:30 p.m., an Air China airline Boing 474–400 landed in an armoured Rome. On board were Chinese President Xi Jinping and the first lady Peng Liyuan. That was the time when relations between Italy and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) moved into the spotlight as never before: during that state visit to Rome, the President Xi Jinping signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Italian Republic and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Cooperation within the Framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (henceforth, MoU) together with the then Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, supported by a coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Eurosceptic Northern League (later, simply the League). Twenty-nine further agreements (ten of commercial and nineteen of an institutional nature) were signed as additions to the overarching MoU between the two countries. Italy thus became the first (and, thus far, only) G7 country to officially join the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路) launched by President Xi in 2013. Despite being a non-binding document merely outlining a framework for cooperation, the MoU sparked a heated debate inside and outside Italy’s borders: notwithstanding the Italian policymakers’ efforts to make the language of the MoU consistent with European norms and standards as well as with the European Union’s Strategy on Connecting Europe and Asia of September 2018, the move was welcomed neither in Washington nor in several other European capitals.

In view of the potential review of the MoU scheduled for 2024, this book offers a precious overview of such agreements, the framework in which they are embedded and the history that brought them to be. Before doing so, we will introduce the debate revolving around the MoU and also the historical context in which it took place.

1. The debate on the MoU

1.1The view from the United States

Unsurprisingly, the harshest criticism came from Washington. When, in early March 2019, Italy’s Undersecretary of State for Trade and Foreign Investment Michele Geraci confirmed to the Financial Times that the Italian Government was negotiating an MoU in support of the BRI, Garrett Marquis – at that time Senior Director for Strategic Communications at the US National Security Council (NSC) – urged it to refrain from supporting what he called China’s ‘vanity project’.1 A tweet from the official account of the US NSC stated that ‘endorsing [the] BRI lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment and will bring no benefits to the Italian people’.2 In the following days, more US officials joined in the criticism of Italy’s decision. US Ambassador to Italy Lewis Eisenberg publicly stated that Chinese investments in Italian infrastructures would carry risks for Italy’s national security.3

Ambassador Eisenberg’s concerns about Chinese investments in infrastructural development in Italy revolved around two sectors in particular: telecommunications and maritime hubs. At that point, the administration of Donald Trump had already embarked on a global campaign to convince US allies to enact bans on the use of Chinese 5G technologies on the grounds that companies such as Huawei or ZTE could grant the Chinese government access sensitive data. Such concerns led to 5G technologies being excluded from the remit of the Sino–Italian MoU, yet concerns regarding the signing of the MoU evidently persisted in Washington.

Another reason for apprehension was that China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) could now acquire shares in large Italian infrastructure facilities, especially ports, as had already been the case with the Greek port of Piraeus. Criticisms of Italy’s decision to sign the MoU also drew on the experience of other countries involved in BRI-related projects, which showed that the initiative was fraught with problems. Specifically, some commentators argued that Italy might be unable to repay the generous Chinese loans through which joint infrastructural projects were supposed to be funded, and it could thus eventually fall into the so-called debt trap.4


ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2023 (May)
Bilateral agreement between Italy and China China-led Belt and Road Initiative Bilateral collaboration
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. 168 pp., 6 fig. b/w, 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Beatrice Gallelli (Volume editor) Francesca Ghiretti (Volume editor)

Beatrice Gallelli is an Assistant Professor at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and Research Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI). Her research interests include Chinese political discourse and strategies of governance in contemporary China Francesca Ghiretti is an analyst at MERICS and a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs. Her interest includes EU-China relations, economic security and connectivity strategies


Title: The Belt and Road initiative in Italy
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170 pages