As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi began his first European post-pandemic tour in Italy on Tuesday, he made one key message clear: Do not get dragged into whatever “new Cold War” the US tries to promote.
But Wang also began his trip in Rome with a stern warning about Hong Kong from his Italian counterpart, Luigi Di Maio, who said that China ought to respect its speech freedoms – signalling the European Union’s continued disapproval of the national security law Beijing imposed on the city.
Wang’s attempt at a charm offensive comes while Europe grows wary of China after the coronavirus and Beijing’s moves on Hong Kong. It also follows three recent European trips during the pandemic by high-level US officials – two by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and one by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien – who tried to build a transatlantic alliance against China.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
“On the so-called new Cold War … China has no intention in launching any new Cold War. We are resolutely opposed to any promotion of a new Cold War,” Wang said.
Without mentioning the United States by name, he added, “This is for one’s self-interest. This is to hold all countries in the world hostage.”
Italy is a strategic choice to start Wang’s trip. Not only was it the first European country to suffer a large coronavirus outbreak, but it is also the only Group of Seven nation to have signed a memorandum of agreement to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Indeed, at a news conference in Rome, Wang told his host, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, to work closely with Beijing on belt and road projects, as Italy tries to revive its pandemic-ravaged economy.
“This shows the significance of Italy in China’s diplomatic relations,” Wang said. “This also shows our high degree of attention on China-Europe relations.”
The Covid-19 pandemic first broke out in China, and Wang recounted China’s help to Italy when the virus was at its peak there earlier this year.
The ministers said they had discussed many issues, among them trade, agriculture, energy as well as Hong Kong.
On one point, the silence was deafening. Neither Wang nor Di Maio mentioned 5G networks, or Italy’s actions concerning Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecoms giant, to develop its system. Rome is stuck between the need for good business ties with Beijing and the strategic concerns of the US, which has leaned hard on its allies not to use Huawei for security reasons.
Italy has not banned Huawei, but its biggest telecoms operator, TIM, has ruled out using Huawei in its core, most sensitive operations. Beijing is trying to avoid a total ban of Huawei, which Washington has asked Rome to impose.
Standing next to Di Maio under the roof of the 16th-century Villa Madama, Wang said: “We believe that no countries would take part in [a new Cold War]. And we believe they will collectively oppose anyone who wants to pull the world back to the rule of jungle.”
Di Maio said Italy was in a “unique” strategic position of maintaining ties both to China as well as to its long-standing allies – a reference to the US.
In June, Di Maio reaffirmed his country’s affinity for US values, while China was a commercial partner.
“The United States is our main ally. We share a great deal with the United States, both in terms of trade and values,” he said then. “The [Belt and Road] can offer new business opportunities to the ‘Made in Italy’.”
Hong Kong seemed the only point of contention between the two sides, with Di Maio raising the topic in his opening remarks: “It is essential to preserve the high degree of autonomy and freedom. We will closely follow the implications of the new national security law.
“I stressed that Italy and other EU member states together support Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity on the basis of ‘one country, two systems’.”
Wang, for his part, reiterated China’s position, saying that the law was needed since Hong Kong had lacked any way to address the growing calls for independence.
Earlier on Tuesday, the activist Nathan Law Kwun-chung – who has left Hong Kong and relocated to Europe because of the security law – was protesting outside the foreign ministry’s office, flanked by the former Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata and Senator Lucio Malan.
Law said: “My arrival and the message I'm bringing here is very clear: We need to address the human rights violations to China even if we're engaged with them – and we have to be very aware of the infiltration and their authoritarian expansionist nature.”
Wang stressed China’s respect for European unity, but he will not be visiting Brussels on this trip. Instead he will continue to three EU countries – the Netherlands, France and Germany – as well as Norway.
Lucrezia Poggetti, an expert on Italian-Chinese relations at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, said many Italians were disappointed since joining the Belt and Road Initiative.
“Wang knows that since the signature of the belt and road memorandum of understanding in March 2019, the mood about China in Italy has changed: rather than opening up economic opportunities for Italian businesses, the trade imbalance has widened in China’s favour,” Poggetti said.
Wang's visit saw the signing of an agreement between Italian gas pipeline operator Snam and PipeChina – allowing the Italian company to provide its Chinese counterpart with technical support for the construction, management and maintenance of natural gas transportation, regasification and storage infrastructures.
Snam will also be able to carry out joint research and development activities in the energy transition in China as well as experiments in the hydrogen sector with PipeChina.
In vowing to uphold multilateralism against forces with a Cold War mentality that work to undermine EU-China relations, Wang was trying to fend off the US narrative in Europe, Poggetti said, adding: “It confirmed that competition with the US is a key aspect of this visit to Europe.”
At a time when China finds itself more internationally isolated than in the recent past, Wang was eager for a note of solidarity. Toward the end of the press conference in Rome, when Di Maio gestured to show Wang the way out, he turned to Di Maio and the two men bumped elbows for the photographers.
More from South China Morning Post:
- ‘Damage control’ at heart of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s mission to Europe
- Italy urged to treat China fairly and positively as Beijing escalates its charm offensive in Europe
This article China’s foreign minister Wang Yi tells European Union not to get caught up in ‘new Cold War’ first appeared on South China Morning Post