Italian-Chinese bilateral relations have improved considerably in recent years in both quality and intensity. This progress has taken place against the background of China’s growing integration with the international economy, its closer relations with the EU, increased bilateral trade starting in the early 1990s, the rise of Peking on the international stage, and Italy’s notable dynamism in this vast Asian theatre.
Bilateral relations have intensified considerably over recent years thanks to a constant commitment on both sides to establishing a strategic partnership. The excellent status of relations has been confirmed by the further intensification of political dialogue, largely the result of the official visits to China by Italy’s Prime Minister, the Hon. Romano Prodi (13-18 September 2006), and Deputy Premier and Minister for Foreign Affairs Massimo D'Alema (12-15 November 2006). On 15 June 2007 the Chinese Trade Minister, Bo Xilai, visited Italy to hold a new session of the Joint Economic Commission, which had not meet since 2002. In addition to a meeting with the Minister for International Trade, Emma Bonino, he also had a brief talk with Prime Minister Prodi.
In June, and then again in September, Secretary of State Vernetti also visited China. On his first visit, he chaired, with his Chinese colleague Li Huey, a Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue organised in the ASEM framework. And on his second visit he opened the preparatory meeting of the 3rd session of the Italy-China Committee and had political talks with the Deputy Foreign Minister, Kong Quan.
Italy’s initiatives are intended to increase not just the exchange of visits by government authorities but also contacts between members of Parliament, regions and local authorities.
Economic and trade relations
Italy’s priority interest is to achieve a better balance in trade between Italy and China and, hopefully, to double trade in the next five years. The aim is for trade development to be matched by development in investment by Chinese groups on the basis of their market and profitability evaluations, thus facilitating a greater flow of Chinese capital toward Italy. The creation of the Mandarin Fund has been an important and concrete step in this process. The two countries intend to use the fund as a tool to promote the flow of investments by Italian companies toward China and vice versa.
Bilateral trade. According to the Chinese figures, in 2006 Chinese-Italian trade went up 32% as compared with 2005 to 24.5 billion USD. Our exports to China increased by 24% (8.6 billion USD). However, the growth in Chinese exports to Italy (up 37% on an annual basis, 15.9 USD) was even more marked, resulting in a deepening of our trade deficit with China (7.3 billion USD). In the EU context (Europe is China’s first trading partner), we rank fifth for total trade volume with China; however, in terms of exports alone we rise to third place, behind France and Germany.
The figures for the first quarter of 2007 confirm this trend. The total volume of trade was 6.7 billion USD, up 25% as compared with the same period in 2006—an excellent performance for our exports (2.2 billion USD, up 28%). However, Chinese exports increased by 39% (4.5 billion USD), the result of a record Chinese surplus in the first quarter.
This creates a need to take steps to promote a gradual balancing of trade and to persist in our efforts to attract Chinese investment to Italy. In 2006 China invested about 16 billion USD abroad, an annual growth of 32%. This makes a cumulative total of 63 billion USD over the last 5 years. This phenomenon is still in its early stages, but will most certainly increase over the years in line with the go-global policy promoted by China’s leadership.
According to ISTAT (the Italian national statistics institute), the cumulative total of Chinese investment in Italy up to the end of 2005 was 54.75 million USD. Of this sum, 21.27 million USD refer to 2005.
The Italy-China Governmental Committee
In the bilateral economic context, the work of the Italy-China Governmental Committee is particularly important. The Committee was set up in May 2004 during the visit to Rome by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Chaired by the two foreign ministers, it now acts as a key instrument in Italian-Chinese bilateral relations. In the three years since it was set up the Committee has become an useful and effective tool to guide and coordinate relations between the two countries. At the same time, it drives and promotes specific dossiers, by liaising - not always an easy task - between government departments and public and private sector bodies operating in the two countries to develop bilateral relations. The Governmental Committee also provides the necessary mechanism for coordinating, monitoring and guiding bilateral relations. Its institutional task is to ensure that political agreements made at the highest levels are translated into practice.
Environment and Health
The environment and health are two further areas of collaboration between Italy and China. Collaboration between China and our Environment Ministry is well established (57 projects under way for a total of €190 million). We are now waiting for our Development Cooperation programmes (amounting to €81 million) to get under way. These will need to be given visibility and integrated with the work already carried out by the Ministry of the Environment.
Of equally fundamental importance is the development of health cooperation. Italy has a lot to give in the fields of rural medicine, telemedicine and prevention. And our country can benefit in turn from the additional clinical research and the manufacture of new drugs obtained from the active ingredients of traditional Chinese medicine.
To Chinese eyes, Italians are the custodians and interpreters of an ancient culture and civilisation that can hold its own alongside that of China in terms of antiquity, historical continuity, sophistication and richness. Enhanced cultural cooperation should take the form of initiatives to promote both the highest expressions of our culture (opera, music, art) and the more popular levels (sport).
The 2006 “Year of Italy in China”, promoted and coordinated by the Director General for Asia and Oceania (DGAO), underscored the central role of cultural cooperation in Italian-Chinese relations. It provided a marvellous showcase for Italian events (concerts, exhibitions, shows, conferences and workshops) of the very highest cultural and artistic value.
The events of the Year of Italy in China sought to provide an up-to-date and multi-faceted image of Italy where modernity can draw on our rich traditions and the construction of the future co-exists with an awareness of the value and importance of our cultural roots.