Italy has elected its most right-wing government since the end of World War II, and China watchers are anticipating a different type of relationship between Giorgia Meloni, in position to become Italy’s next prime minister, and Beijing based on her comments about Taiwan during her campaign.
Diplomatic issues in Asia are not usually the focus of political debate in Italian elections, but analysts noted that before the election, Meloni made a rare statement on Taiwan, voicing opposition to China’s military threats to the island. She also said she would promote bilateral contacts between Italy and Taiwan, something Beijing strongly opposes.
In July, Meloni posted on Twitter a pre-election statement on Taiwan. The post showed a photo of her and Taiwan’s representative in Italy, Andrea Lee Sing-ying. Meloni called Lee an ambassador. The tweet continued by saying she “always stands alongside those who believe in the values of freedom and democracy.”
Taiwan and Italy do not have formal diplomatic relations. Like many other nations, Italy has diplomatic relations with China. Beijing claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and bristles at any official contacts between Taipei and other nations.
Last week, in an interview with Taiwan’s official Central News Agency, Meloni said the party that she leads, the Brothers of Italy, would join democratic countries in condemning China’s military threat to Taiwan and that the European Union should use all of its diplomatic and political means to exert pressure to avoid conflicts in the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan as bridge
Meloni also noted she would deepen exchanges with Taiwan in culture, tourism, public health, scientific research and the semiconductor industry, despite differences in political philosophies with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Meloni did not specify in which areas she differed with Tsai’s philosophies. Tsai is Taiwan’s first female president, and Meloni is set to become Italy’s first female prime minister, but it is widely known that Tsai supports same-sex marriage, something Meloni opposes.
At a regular briefing this week, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin voiced confidence that ties with Italy would remain strong but urged “certain individuals” in Italy to recognize the “highly sensitive nature” of what Beijing calls the “Taiwan question.”
“The Taiwan question is purely China’s internal affair, which brooks no foreign interference,” Wang said. He also cautioned against “sending wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”
Guido Alberto Casanova, an associate researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, told VOA Mandarin that as a nationalist, from Italy’s far-right, Meloni’s adversarial position on China speaks to the need to protect the interest of Italian industries from Chinese takeovers. But her position is also aimed at building up her international credibility, he said.
“She has a very controversial background. She comes from a post-fascist era of Italian politics; she was mutating in the far right. … So, she needs to calm people both in Europe and the United States,” he said, speaking with VOA in a phone interview.
“The hot issue, in the United States, at least, is the defense of democracy and human rights. Taiwan, of course, is the key. That’s why she needs to present herself as in solidarity with the American support for Taiwan, because she needs to win approval,” he said.
Belt and Road in the balance?
The Italian government has long had friendly relations with Beijing and has rarely spoken out on China issues. Chinese state media reports on Italy have mostly been positive.
However, the changes in Italy’s political landscape and the dramatic shift in opinion toward China globally, as well as among Italian citizens, could have an effect on relations between Rome and Beijing, analysts said.
One area in question under the new leadership is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure project that Italy has previously supported.
Italy is the only G-7 country to have signed a memorandum of understanding with China on the BRI. It was signed by then-Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and China’s President Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s visit to Italy in 2019. The document is valid for five years and will remain in force if there are no objections from either side.
The Italian government had hoped the deal with Beijing would boost Italian exports to China. However, some observers said China was more interested in building infrastructure in the country and buying up companies than boosting trade. For her part, Meloni has already voiced skepticism and called the signing of the agreement with China a huge mistake.
“If the memorandum is renewed tomorrow, I hardly see the right political conditions,” she said in a September 23 interview with Taiwan’s state Central News Agency.
Francesco Sisci, a longtime political analyst of China affairs and a visiting professor at LUISS University in Rome, told VOA Mandarin that the BRI had practically stopped in Italy.
“The Italian government has promised a lot but very little has been carried out – in fact, almost zero. The memorandum is completely empty,” Sisci told VOA in a phone interview. “The Belt and Road Memorandum is a failure for both Italy and China. Both sides had a big misunderstanding, so the document should not have been signed.”
While Meloni is expected to become the next prime minister of Italy, it will take weeks for the new Italian government to be formed.
Bo Gu contributed to this report.