About The Burgeoning Friendship Between China And Italy

China’s support to Italy in a time when the EU nation faced COVID-19 alone reinforces a friendship that has been cultivated for years.

The support given by China to Italy in a time of crisis reinforces a friendship that has been cultivated for years

We fail to become better. Flawed systems fail to make space for new systems. The SARS outbreak of 2003 showed the 30 affected countries that their national systems can indeed be motivated to suppress information that could endanger the health of domestic markets or politics, even if the health of their people is at risk. It took Beijing almost five months to inform its residents about the SARS crisis. Though we have international health organizations, a major multilateral regulatory effort to empower them with real oversight had been long overdue: It was 2005 when the World Health Organization (WHO) was granted unprecedented powers, with respect to the soft authority usually assigned to international organizations.

Yet such multilateral oversight has already had many failings, detailed by Foreign Policy as including weak exercise of emergency authority, and deference to influential/affected countries instead of to its primary mission. And so the vacuum of reliable action and international solidarity remained. Quick to extend the metaphorical and tangible bandage was the most afflicted country, who is rising anew from its own share of COVID-19 ashes. While China’s handling of the virus has certainly been both lauded and criticized, extraordinary assistance to Italy was offered by no other nation at precisely the time Italy entreated the EU to share needed supplies. A team of medical experts with 31 tons of supplies by air and 26.4 tons of equipment delivered by land were sent by China as confirmation of an evolving bilateral relationship of increasingly common interests.

The burgeoning friendship between China and Italy

Support for Italy is not only promised from the Chinese government and the Red Cross Society of China, but also by the residents of Sichuan who remember Italy’s emergency team of rescue experts deployed to the western Chinese province during its devastating earthquake of May 2008. The Italian Embassy in Beijing had made arrangements to dispatch Italian technicians in the hours immediately following the earthquake, and an Italian engineer led the EU team coordinating aid from member states. In the earthquake’s drawn-out aftermath, 14 Italian doctors stayed to treat over 900 patients. Of the nine-person medical team that arrived in Rome on March 12, five members are proudly from Sichuan

China Daily reports that the needed supplies sent to re-equip Italian hospitals battling COVID-19 were donated by citizens “from all walks of life,” collected in Chinese cities, provinces, and companies that have close ties with Italy. The first shipment had been sent from the Zhejiang province, from which over 300,000 of its people live in Italy. One of my colleagues in the Zhejiang province, Diana, is still working from home herself as the education sector has not restored face-to-face interactions. Other industries have returned to their offices, yet those involved in international business are facing an uphill battle even as China reports no new domestic cases for the first time since the outbreak. “China is trying to help the whole world with our experience and medical supplies. I hope we can overcome this outbreak ASAP, so its impact on the global economy won’t be too serious.” Diana checks in with me often about the situation in Italy, along with one of my students also from Zhejiang who offered to prepare a shipment of masks for my family.

Every friendship (between nations) has strings

Such friendship must also extend from Italy’s endorsement of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, along with other deals across the energy, steel, and gas pipeline sectors valued at around €5 billion. The March 2019 signing was symbolic as Italy was the first G7 country to welcome increasing Chinese global investment. Yet as Italy’s national debt soars and its economy teeters on the edge, investment deals with powerful friends with interests may not be as balanced as intended.

Last March the BBC interviewed Peter Frankopan, professor of Global History at Oxford University, on what many Western leaders see as ‘predatory’ investment. “The seemingly innocuous move comes at a sensitive time for Europe and the European Union, where there is suddenly a great deal of trepidation not only about China, but about working out how Europe or the EU should adapt and react to a changing world.”

A partnership born in crisis

And this sensitive time will only become more fragile, as Europe, now with a higher death toll than that of China from COVID-19, knows a time of reckoning is waiting for how it responded to member nations’ requests for assistance. As bilateral programs such as the Marco Polo and Turnadot initiatives bring future leaders into stronger Italy-China partnerships, it’s not difficult to see where Italy will lean for support and volunteer its friendship in the coming years.

Sophie, an educator at an international school in Shenzhen, shared with me her concern that Italy take China’s actions to contain the coronavirus as a precedent. 

“The COVID-19 outbreak is currently a global health crisis that affects not just one country or one continent. Although it’s hard to say whatever China has done to contain the coronavirus is perfect, since it seems like no country can react immediately to such public health emergencies that demand governments to mobilize all kinds of resources, efforts that the Chinese government and especially medical professionals have made should be considered as effective so far. I feel remarkably proud of the decision that China has made — sending a delegation of medical professionals to Italy, as it shows what we should deal with is the virus that threatens the entire human population, rather than bickering over who is to blame or using it as an excuse to reinforce racism, xenophobia, or other negativity. I pray for people in Italy and other countries. The day we defeat COVID-19 will be coming soon.”

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