Caught in the middle? Italy and China after COVID-19

If we look only at trade figures, Sino-Italian relations might not be considered worth our attention. In fact, they are very lop-sided. For Italy, China is not a significant partner, accounting for 3.4% of exports and 7.2% of imports. For China, Italy is even less important, representing less than 1% of both imports and exports. So why should we bother?

There are at least two reasons to be interested in Sino-Italian relations.

The first is that bilateral trade explains only a part of the economic interconnections, since China and Italy are linked through complex global supply chains that involve other countries. For example, automotive components produced in Italy that are exported to Germany, end up in China in the export of German cars.

The second reason has to do with the global implications of the political economy of bilateral relations, before and after COVID-19.

Italy is a highly-indebted country with a public debt/GDP ratio that was already one of the highest in the West and is expected to grow further. In addition, the Italian manufacturing structure – based on small and  medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – is often undercapitalized. This indebtedness will be put under further pressure, due to lack of demand and liquidity constraints arising from the pandemic.

The stronger presence of Chinese investors in Italy is considered a serious concern both in Europe and in the US; as Italy is seen as a possible Trojan horse for Chinese interests in the EU – especially after Italy signed in 2019 a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The decoupling of the US economy from China may also influence Sino-Italian relations, as trade and investment in technology could be limited by eventual American sanctions. Italy’s room to manoeuvre will depend then on how the US-China relations will evolve.

In the medium term, Italy needs to develop its own Chinese strategy, defined within the EU framework. Only an EU-wide common strategy will open some space for Rome to shape a more tailored approach to Italy’s specific needs and interests, but at the same time coherent with the Italian Republic’s long-term foreign policy pillars; Europeanism and Atlantism.

In the longer term, Italy must avoid being caught in the middle of rising Sino-American competition over its economic spoils.

This post is an excerpt from “Italy After COVID-19”, a forthcoming book edited by Andrea Goldstein and Giorgio Bellettini (Bononia University Press).

Giuseppe Gabusi is Assistant Professor of International Political Economy and Political Economy of East Asia at the University of Turin.

Giorgio Prodi is Associate Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Ferrara.


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Image by Oleksii Liskonih

Epidemics: A View from Italy

Italy’s first two cases of the coronavirus pandemic were confirmed on 30 January 2020 by the Istituto Spallanzani which specializes in infectious diseases, the first research centre in Europe in fact to isolate the genomic sequence of COVID-19. The patients were a couple of Chinese tourists, both of whom had recovered by 26 February. Just over a week earlier, on 18 February, the first case of secondary transmission was recorded at Codogno, a small town outside Milan, in the Plain of Lombardy. Over half of the deaths in Italy attributed to COVID-19 have occurred in that region, one of Italy’s wealthiest.

Italy was the first European country to go into lockdown, with some other western countries learning lessons from its experience; others not.

The experience of isolation may have led some Italians to reflect on the book they will all have read (at least parts of) in school, Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), a sweeping historical novel which has as its backdrop an epidemic in the hinterland of Milan.

Two chapters of the novel (31 and 32 for those who want to dig deeper) are dedicated to the plague year of 1630 and indeed Manzoni expanded them into an independent work, Storia della colonna infame (History of the Monument of Shame), which tells a tale of authorities slow to appreciate the size of the problem, slow to act, and then rather swifter to deflect blame.

The 1630 outbreak of bubonic plague – aka The Plague of Milan – during Lombardy’s long Spanish (Hapsburg) domination, was filtered through the religious lens of God’s punishment on the ungodly, with barefooted processions through the city streets – the antithesis of social distancing – caused the infection to spread exponentially. In all of this misery there circulated rumour and suspicion. Stories gained currency of certain ‘smearers’ (‘untori’) who, it was alleged, engaged in nocturnal smearing of deadly unguents around the city of Milan, on door handles and other surfaces to spread the contagion. The Spanish authorities, rather than displaying good sense and proper leadership, had suspects identified, rounded up, horribly tortured and publicly executed.

Manzoni’s history of the 1630 events, written over 200 years later, drew on not just on contemporary accounts and court transcripts but on a classic text of the Italian Enlightenment; Cesare Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene (Of crimes and punishments), 1764. The Monument of Shame was erected in 1630 on the site of Gian Giacomo Mora’s barber shop after he had been executed along with Guglielmo Piazza as the ‘smearers’. A symbol or imperial Spanish superstition and injustice, it was removed under Austrian rule in 1778.

Thankfully there will be no physical moments of shame erected this time – but the final analysis may lead to some figurative ones.

Prior to his appointment as Dean of Arts & Sciences, and subsequently Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Edge Hill University, George Talbot was Professor of Italian at the University of Hull


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Main image by Peter H from Pixabay; Second image: Storia della colonna infame (History of the Monument of Shame) image by Francesco Gonin for the 1840 edition, Pubblico dominio,