Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic, has put Italy’s healthcare system under severe strain and indirectly plunged the economy into a massive recession, as most industrial and commercial activities have come to a standstill following the enactment of a national lockdown.
As it struggles to contain the spread of the virus while trying to keep the economy afloat, the Italian government will also have to navigate the rough seas of a more competitive international system. Weathering the agitated waters will not be easy, as the severity of the outbreak in Italy (at the time of writing, the third hardest-hit country in the world in terms of fatalities and infections) has exposed its vulnerability to systemic dynamics the pandemic is likely to exacerbate, most notably the US-China rivalry.
Both the US and China seem to see the COVID-19 crisis through the lenses of geopolitical competition. A desire to repair its international reputation and gain influence underlies China’s offer of medical equipment and sanitary know-how to countries hit by the contagion – the so-called “mask diplomacy”. The Communist Party’s propaganda machine has gone the extra mile to present China as a solidary and responsible country, while also indulging in conspiracy theories claiming the virus did not originate from Wuhan.
The US has responded by relentlessly reminding the world of China’s concealment of critical information during the early weeks of the contagion and increasingly hinting that Chinese labs may be the ultimate origin of the virus. US President Donald Trump has a further reason to keep bashing China, which he sees as politically expedient as he enters a re-election campaign that COVID-19 has made rather more unpredictable than anticipated. It is reasonable to expect that the undercurrents for conflict between China and the US will gather steam in areas where China’s influence may be felt the most, such as Africa, the Middle East and ultimately Europe too. In this regard, Italy is an exemplary case.
Italy has occupied a special place in China’s system of international relations since it became the first G7 member last year to sign a memorandum of understanding in support of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the policy framework under which China promotes infrastructure development in a number of countries along the land and maritime trade routes between Asia and Europe. Unsurprisingly, Italy rapidly became a main target of China’s mask diplomacy. Beijing sent medical equipment and teams of health experts to virus-infested Italian regions, companies made donations (state-owned enterprises targeted the port cities of Genoa and Trieste, both critical to the BRI), the Chinese diaspora mobilised to provide further assistance and the Chinese embassy in Rome engaged in a sustained media campaign celebrating the new depth of the bilateral relationship.
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This blog first appeared on the IAI site.
Author: Riccardo Alcaro is Research Coordinator and Head of the Global Actors Programme, IAI.
Image courtesy of Edna Winti via Flickr.
The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.
 Trading Economics estimates a fall in the Italian GDP by 18 and 10.3 per cent in Q2 and Q3, respectively. See Trading Economics, Italy Forecasts, https://tradingeconomics.com/italy/forecast.
 As of 7 May 2020, confirmed cases of Covid-19-infected people amounted to 215,858, with 29,958 deaths. The Worldometer website regularly updates coronavirus cases: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries.
 Brian Wong, “China’s Mask Diplomacy”, in The Diplomat, 25 March 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/chinas-mask-diplomacy.
 Steven Lee Meyers, “China Spins Tale That the U.S. Army Started the Coronavirus Epidemic”, in The New York Times, 13 March 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/world/asia/coronavirus-china-conspiracy-theory.html.
 Jacqueline Alemany, “President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Continue to Push Unsubstantiated Wuhan Lab Theory on Novel Coronavirus Origins”, in PowerPost, 4 May 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/powerup/2020/05/04/5eaf5070602ff15fb00238b8.
 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 Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative, 22 March 21019, http://www.governo.it/sites/governo.it/files/Memorandum_Italia-Cina_EN.pdf.
 Francesca Ghiretti, “China, Italy and COVID-19: Benevolent Support or Strategic Surge?”, in IAI Commentaries, No. 20|14 (March 2020), https://www.iai.it/en/node/11436.