Italy-Asia: Past and Present
Italy’s image and current role in Asia cannot be separated from the echoes of a centuries-old history of contacts and ties between the peninsula and the peoples and cultures of the Orient. It is a region that was first revealed to Europeans through the eyes and writings of Italian travellers. The way to the Orient was opened and travelled by men of faith, the Jesuits and the Franciscans. Fra Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, a papal legate, was the first European to be admitted to the court of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, in 1246, and his “Ystoria Mongalorum” is the most ancient account by a European on Mongol history and traditions. The commitment and cultural mediation by people such as Alessandro Valignano, Matteo Ricci and Marco Polo contributed to establishing Italy as the first European country to bring the West into contact with the Orient. Others who are less known, but not less courageous, include Nicolò dei Conti – who reached the island of Sumatra and the Indochinese peninsula – and Ludovico da Varthema, who was probably the first to spread news in the West about the existence of Australia.
Last year the Asia-Pacific area generated 54% of world GDP, 44% trade and 60% growth. Estimates state that by 2030 this economic region will be larger than the G-7 and half the size of the G-20. It is no surprise that it is a priority for Italy due to its increasingly important role on the global stage, its dynamic economy and the growth and business opportunities it can offer Italian companies.
In recent years Italy has taken a renewed interest in the region and has strengthened its relationships with the various countries on its shores. Evidence of this renewed dynamism is the increasing number of visits by government representatives, from the President of the Republic, to the President of the Council of Ministers and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, often accompanied by business leaders.
Diplomatic activities, with a strong economic component, aim at strengthening the presence of our country in the Asian region at regional and bilateral levels, in line with Italy’s intention to enhance its contribution to regional and global stability and promote growth through a greater and closer synergy with emerging economies.
Economic and political relationships
Relationships between Italy and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), that celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2015, are close, diversified and steadily expanding thanks to political visits and rapidly growing sectorial cooperation. Since 2004, Italy has had a strategic partnership with the PRC that provides a forum for dealing with bilateral issues and a global political dialogue on China-EU relationships, and on regional and multilateral issues of common interest. The main part of this partnership is the Italy-China Government Committee, set up in 2004 and co-chaired by the foreign ministers of the countries. The committee brings together representatives of the main public administrations of the countries and helps develop cooperation in different sectors.
The vitality of bilateral relationships concerns not only the central administrations but also the local administrations (Italian Regions and Municipalities; Chinese Provinces and Municipalities). There is also a network of ever-closer contacts between businesses, academic and scientific institutions and communities of the two nations.
In bilateral relations, economic and trade cooperation has taken on a key role with the goal of globally rebalancing the trade volume going hand in hand with attracting more Chinese investment in Italy, especially industrial investment. The first goal can be achieved only by gradually removing the obstacles our companies find when seeking to gain access to the Chinese market, and by effectively protecting Italian brands and products with geographic indications (GI).
Priority actions in bilateral relations are to be taken in such areas as health, the environment, food safety and creative innovation and culture. Tourism and people-to-people relations are rapidly expanding in both countries.
Last year was the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Italy and Japan - the Friendship and Trade Treaty was signed on 25 August 1866. Apart from the frequent political contacts between our countries, bilateral relations include cooperation in a broad range of sectors, a positive trend in economic and trade relations and shared views about many regional and global issues. The coincidence of views emerges in particular at the G-7 and G-20 summits.
The relationship between the Italians and the Japanese are particularly strong as shown by the large numbers of tourists and mutual interest in our respective cultures.
Friendship between the Italians and the Japanese has frequently been expressed in solidarity over natural catastrophes such as the earthquakes that hit the Italian peninsula and the Japanese archipelago. Aid was provided by both countries, in particular, over the earthquakes in L’Aquila (2009), Tohoku (2011), and in Kyushu and central Italy (2016).
Republic of Korea
There are excellent relationships between Italy and the Republic of Korea. The 130th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relationships was celebrated in 2014. These relationships are underpinned by sound bilateral political dialogue and shared values and positions on the main regional and global issues discussed at the most important multilateral forums.
Relationships between the countries are characterised by flourishing and highly diversified trade, driven by the free-trade agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Korea and cooperation in the industrial sector.
People-to-people relations are also expanding: the figures on tourism from South Korea to Italy show a positive trend helped by the increase in the number of direct flights to Italy.
Cultural promotion is an area of mutual interest, especially in design and music.
Fnally, Italy attaches great importance to cooperation in the scientific and technological field with an advanced country like Korea that invests 4.3% of its GDP in research and development and has a strong interaction between scientific research and business activities.
Relationships between Italy and Mongolia were formally established in 1970 and are becoming more frequent especially following the opening of embassies in Rome in 2012 and in Ulaanbaatar in 2016, and by a mutual interest in deepening political dialogue and sectorial cooperation with special emphasis on an increase in trade and mutual investments.
The two countries are engaged in developing cooperation in the textile-tanning sectors, agriculture and food safety (meat processing), transportation and energy infrastructure and mining.
South and Central Asia is unquestionably a region of interest for several crucial aspects of global governance. This is an area with huge potential for economic development, not only because it includes India, but also due to the scope for growth that is typical of emerging economies like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The countries of the area offer interesting opportunities in further development of economic and trade relations following growth and bilateral exchanges in recent years. Commercial exchanges with India are worth about 7.5 billion euros. Italy exports mainly machinery, chemical products, vehicles, agricultural products and foods to India and it imports from India oil by-products, chemical products, plastic materials, synthetic rubber and clothing. In India there there are about 580 companies whose share capital is totally or partially Italian, mainly in the two largest industrial areas of the country - Delhi and Mumbai.
Trade with Bangladesh is worth about 1.8 billion euros. More than 90% of Italian imports from Bangladesh are textiles and leather products. Most Italian exports to Bangladesh are industrial machinery. Italian investment is mostly concentrated in textiles. Other sectors of interest are machinery for producing footwear and for tanneries.
Italy imports mainly textiles, clothing and leather products from Pakistan. Most of our exports are machinery (especially for the textile industry), basic chemical products, fertilisers and plastic materials worth about 1 billion euros. The “GSP Plus” preferential tariff scheme granted by the European Union from 1 January 2014, has stimulated growth and, at the same time, has been an important opportunity for partnerships with local businesses in sectors such as textile machinery and leather and footwear machinery.
With Sri Lanka, bilateral trade is worth 550 million euros. Italy exports textiles and machinery, and imports mainly clothing and rubber. Most of our imports from Sri Lanka are textiles.
Other economic aspects
From the economic standpoint the Southern Asia region is of great interest for the high growth rates in recent years and for its growth potential. India’s GDP continues to grow at 7%, placing the country among the largest economies in the world.
The other countries of the sub-continent are growing at rates between 5 and 6.5%. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have a steady population growth and high rates of urbanisation, factors that may strongly drive growth. The textile sector is the main driver, in particular in Bangladesh, which has become a worldwide hub.
SOUTHEAST ASIA AND OCEANIA
Italy is particularly interested in the ASEAN Area which constitutes a market of 650 million people and has had high growth rates for several consecutive years. This area is becoming increasingly important at political, economic and commercial levels. Italy’s exports to the ASEAN area from 2010 to 2015 have grown by 46.4% (ICE elaborations on ISTAT data), and trade during the same period has increased by 41.8%. In recent years discussions with ASEAN countries has been stepped up and wide-ranging strategic partnerships have been set up to promote relationships. Frequent visits at government level are a strong signal of the growing attention Italy is paying to these emerging countries.
Our exports to the Philippines have more than doubled during the last five years (up by 113%) and the country has a fast-growing economy of great interest to our companies. Our excellent bilateral relationships are strengthened by Italy having a large and well-integrated Philippine community.
Indonesia, an emerging Asian power and the fourth largest democracy in the world, is the leading economy in South-East Asia. It is our partner in the G-20 and a model of a multicultural and tolerant Muslim country, which is a priority partner for Italy in this region. Indonesia is our second commercial partner in the ASEAN region with Italian exports growing by more than 76.3% in the last five years. There is intense interreligious discussion with Djakarta aimed at promoting tolerance and moderation.
Italy has sound economic relations with Malaysia, with Italian exports growing by 18.1% in the last five years. It is an industrialised country that is the source of important investments in Italy. During the last five years there have been several business missions between our two countries, with the Milan Expo an opportunity for high level visits.
The democratic transition in Myanmar has promoted bilateral relations. In April 2015, Foreign Affairs Minister Gentiloni was the first European Foreign Affairs minister to meet President U Thin Kyaw and Aung and State Advisor and Foreign Affairs Minister, San Suu Kyi. Myanmar is an emerging country that is attractive for Italian companies looking for new opportunities in the region.
Singapore, which is an international financial centre and a model of socio-economic development in the region, is particularly important for Italy because among the ASEAN Countries it is one of the main markets for Italian products, worth 1,966 billion euros in 2015. During the last five years our exports have grown by 39%.
Thailand is the second market for our products among ASEAN countries, worth 1,249 billion euros in 2015, and our exports have increased by 32.3% in the last five years. Companies from both countries have set up an active business forum.
We have strong relations with Vietnam within the framework of a Strategic Partnership Declaration with wide-ranging two-year Action Plans that provide guidelines for bilateral cooperation in several sectors and for multilateral cooperation. The Action Plan currently in force was signed in November 2016 during the State visit by Vietnamese President, Tran Dai Quang to Italy. Vietnam is our top commercial partner in the ASEAN area with trade amounting to 3.8 billion euros in 2015 and an 88.2% growth in our exports during the last five years. There is bilateral cooperation in the cultural, scientific and academic sectors with about 100 agreements between Italian and Vietnamese universities.
In Oceania Australia is a G-20 partner that shares our main global priorities. Excellent bilateral relations have been strengthened by a well integrated community of Italian origin of about one million people. Our exports during the last five years have increased by 31.6% and the number of Italian companies involved in major projects in Australia is increasing. Australia has also made considerable investments in Italy.
Friendly relations, and political and economic cooperation with New Zealand have traditionally been excellent. We share the same views on such issues as peace and security and are committed to the moratorium on the death penalty. Economic and commercial relations are expanding in spite of distance.
Globally, from 2010 to 2015, our exports to Oceania increased by 30.9%, and trade by 98%.
In recent years Italy has stepped up its presence in the Pacific area and has increased bilateral relations with the countries of the Pacific Islands Forum especially in relation to their stance on the fight against climate change, sustainable development and protection of the oceans.