The challenge of China extends far beyond the South China Sea. Debate within the transatlantic community has shifted from asking what we should do to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, to wondering how to deal with malicious Chinese influence in our own regions.
How the European Union answers this question matters a good deal. Assuming the United States wishes to help build a common transatlantic agenda that safeguards the community’s interests, it need to forge stronger relationships with many European nations and build trust that can lead to a sustainable consensus. In this endeavor, Italy could be a most helpful partner.
Until recently, the EU seemed intent on charting a truly independent course on China. A month before U.S. President Joe Biden took office, the leaders of the European Council announced they had reached, in principle, a deal with China, the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. All the pact needed was ratification by the European Parliament.
It quickly became apparent, however, that there was no consensus of support for the agreement across the European Union. Critics argued it would make Europe significantly vulnerable to Chinese influence and did not adequately address the issue of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region.
When the Union then sanctioned four Chinese officials for human rights violations in Xinjiang, Chinese-EU relations quickly took a nosedive. Beijing responded with retaliatory sanctions against some European lawmakers and academics.
In a speech last month, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, tried to split the difference. While expressing “full solidarity” with the sanctioned European lawmakers, he stated: “We have to continue engaging with China to advance on issues of common interest, while, at the same time, standing firm on our values.”
Despite the sanctions swap, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remained strongly supportive of the agreement. No surprise there. Germany is by an overwhelming margin the biggest exporter of products to China, and it has the most expansive economic ties to China.
France has also been reluctant to take a harder line on Beijing. In February, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that too severe an approach toward China would be counterproductive. A staunch supporter of so-called European autonomy, Macron sees little value in aping the U.S. position. Macron also sees an opportunity to flex some French leadership in the European Union as it ponders how to handle China.
In contrast, a number of Central European and Baltic nations have pressed for a harder line toward Beijing.
The internal divisions in the EU came to head in May. Initially, it was reported that the ratification process for the agreement had been suspended. Those reports were subsequently denied, but clearly, something is amiss.
The turmoil in Brussels presents Washington with both a problem and an opportunity. The United States wants a united European front toward China. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in March that he wanted to cooperate with Europeans to “promote our shared economic interests and counter some of China's aggressive and coercive actions.” And why not. The Western nations share a commitment to human rights, freely elected governments, and free enterprise. China does not. A transatlantic community that does not defend these values places those equities at risk.
What the United States needs is more European partners to build toward a stronger consensus. Under a new government, Italy might help tip the balance.
For starters, Rome’s relations with Beijing are frostier these days. And there are more factors at play.
In one his first acts as Prime Minister, Mario Draghi reaffirmed Rome's membership in NATO and the historic friendship between Italy and the United States.
The Italian government is also taking concrete steps to stem Beijing's political and economic influence on Italy, especially in terms of industrial policy. Some weeks ago, Rome vetoed the takeover of the Italian semiconductor firm Lpe by the Chinese company Shenzhen Invenland Holdings. This measure was supported by Minister of Economic Development Giancarlo Giorgetti, who also expressed satisfaction that the Chinese company Faw Jiefang had failed to acquire the Italian firm Iveco.
Rome also looks to be more deeply wary of Chinese 5G technology.
Further, the new government has growing differences with Beijing on foreign policy. Last month, for instance, Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini expressed serious concerns about China’s penetration into the Mediterranean Basin.
Italy’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative may also be at risk. Italy joined in March 2019.
There are, of course, limits to how far and fast the Italian prime minister can go. He leads a grand coalition government that includes, among others, the pro-China Five Stars Movement as well as The League, a right-wing party that has gradually taken hostile positions towards Beijing over the past 18 months.
Not only is The League harshly critical of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, it has also introduced a resolution condemning the genocide of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Not surprisingly, that resolution has encountered opposition from the Five Stars Movement.
Clearly, Draghi has to deal with a highly diverse coalition, whose members hold various and sometimes contradictory positions on this and many other issues. Despite this, Italy is now taking a harder line on China—a clear indication that the prime minister hopes for a stronger alignment with the United States.
Going forward, Washington and Rome should look for opportunities to show Brussels that it is possible to reach a real European consensus for dealing with China. One such opportunity will arrive this month at the NATO summit in Brussels.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg set the stage for progress with his March address to the European Parliament. While refusing to consider Beijing an “adversary,” Stoltenberg expressed concern, acknowledging that the rise of China “poses some serious challenges.”
While noting that he felt NATO should remain a regional alliance pairing North America with Europe, Stoltenberg observed that “the threats and the challenges we face in this region, they are more and more global. And the rise of China, the shifting global balance of power, caused by the rise of China, is part of that.”
When NATO member nations gather, the United States can count on Italy to promote a tougher European approach to Beijing. The solidity of transatlantic relations strongly depends on a shared (and assertive) strategy towards China. Washington and Rome should work together.
This piece originally appeared in Real Clear World