A European in China - exclusive interview with the Ambassador of Italy in the People's Republic of China, H.E. Massimo Ambrosetti

This article was originally published in Italian in Panorama on 6th November 2023.

Please note that this is a courtesy translation of the Italian language article originally published in the Panorama Magazine Issue at: https://www.panorama.it/economia/intervista-ambasciatore-italia-massimo-ambrosetti

In our section, we have conducted interviews with numerous entrepreneurs and representatives of the Italian system abroad. This time, we had the honor of interviewing the new Ambassador of Italy to the People's Republic of China, H.E. Massimo Ambrosetti, who began his tenure on May 16th last year.

The Ambassador graduated in Law and International Political Sciences from the University of Padua. Throughout his career, he continued to pursue a high level of academic education, including a Master's in International Relations at Cambridge, a Master's in International Human Rights Law at Oxford, and a PhD at Georgetown University, with a PhD obtained at Cambridge.

His diplomatic career began in March 1991, initially focusing on China at the Asia Office of the General Directorate of Economic Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He served at the Italian Embassy in Beijing as Deputy Head of the Economic-Commercial Office from 1994 to 1999. Subsequently, between 1999 and 2002, he worked at the Permanent Representation of Italy to NATO in Brussels, first as Chief of Staff to the Permanent Representative and later as Counsellor of Legation.

After holding important positions in the United States and Brussels, in 2018, he was appointed Ambassador of Italy to Panama. Before returning to China, from April 2022 to May 2023, he held the position of Director for International Strategic Affairs at the National Cybersecurity Agency (ACN).

An impressive resume to represent Italy in China, and we should keep in mind that Italy is the second manufacturing power in Europe, a member of the G7, and one of the founding states of the European Union.


Below is the interview in which we touch on various points: the commercial cooperation between Italy and China, cultural exchanges, and, of course, a bit of geopolitics.


1.     It is our understanding that you began your diplomatic career "some time ago" in China itself. Returning as the Ambassador of Italy, could you share your feelings about it?


I served for the first time in China in the second half of the 1990s, then as the deputy head of the economic-commercial office. It was, of course, a different China, in a phase of profound transformation, openness, and development. Since then, much has changed, not only thanks to the strong process of urbanization and enormous infrastructure investments but also due to technological development and the digitalization of Chinese society. I found a very different China, but in terms of mentality and a certain socio-cultural background, not so different from the one I had known thirty years ago.


2.     How do you think the relationship between China and Italy has changed/evolved in recent years?


Our bilateral relationship has also been influenced by internal dynamics, just look at the different growth paths of the two economic systems in the last quarter of a century. In the 1990s - just to give a significant example in this regard - the People's Republic of China was still a beneficiary of Italian development aid. What has not changed is the relationship between Italy and China, solid and long-lasting, which has its roots in a long history of exchanges and contacts between two ancient civilizations. The partnership between Italy and China has established characteristics of consolidated collaboration, both at the bilateral level and in the main international fora and within the framework of EU-China relations. These are aspects and areas of collaboration that continue to provide a solid basis for further development of our relations, despite the changes in the international context, which we cannot underestimate in a phase that is also characterized by elements of strategic competition.


In your opinion, what are the new opportunities and challenges for Italian businesses operating in China or seeing China as a new market to enter?


China is the world's second-largest economy, with great capabilities in technological innovation, considerable human capital, and an expanding upper-middle class. It is a market that continues to offer opportunities for Italian products, businesses, and investments, from traditional industrial and consumer goods sectors to the innovative - and dynamically growing - services sector. This is despite a recent conjunctural framework characterized by economic growth levels, demand, and confidence indices decreasing for the first time in decades. Undoubtedly, the challenges that businesses face in this particular economic system, accentuated by ongoing geopolitical changes on a global scale, are significant. Institutionally, we continue to work towards rebalancing trade relations through greater market access, genuine parity of conditions and treatment for our companies, better protection from a legal standpoint, and in terms of intellectual property protection. The Chinese market continues to be characterized by considerable opportunities, along with an undeniable complexity of the operational and regulatory context, which makes it more expensive and challenging for foreign companies to operate. For these reasons, it remains essential for companies to adopt a strategic approach, equipping themselves with appropriate resources and skills and defining their positioning in this market in a long-term perspective based on careful analysis of costs and potential benefits. At the same time, especially to revitalize key sectors for our exports, such as high-end, design, and luxury products, it is necessary to strengthen without further delay that systemic approach, which is an essential factor for success in this market.


3.     Political visits by Italian representatives to China have finally resumed. Recently, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Hon. Antonio Tajani came to Beijing to revitalize bilateral relations and to discuss, among other things, the renewal of the BRI agreement. Can you tell us how the visit went?


The visit of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tajani was undoubtedly a success as it provided an opportunity for constructive and strategic dialogue with the Chinese counterparts: Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao. All the main issues of the bilateral relationship were addressed, in political, economic, scientific, and cultural areas. The two Foreign Ministers also co-chaired the 11th plenary session of the Italy-China Government Committee, which is the main coordination mechanism for bilateral collaborations in various areas of mutual interest. With Foreign Minister Wang Yi, it was also possible to address important issues on the international agenda, first and foremost the war in Ukraine, but also EU-China relations. The Deputy Prime Minister's first mission to Beijing since the pandemic was a very intense and fruitful visit, preceded by visits of Chinese Ministers to Italy. The willingness of both parties to continue this renewed exchange of visits was confirmed, and indeed, a comprehensive mission in China by the Minister of Tourism Santanchè recently took place. It represents a true revival of bilateral cooperation, after the years of the pandemic, also in view of the twentieth anniversary next year of the global strategic partnership established between Italy and China in 2004. As stated on recent occasions by Minister Tajani and by President Meloni herself, this is the primary framework for the further development of cooperation between Italy and China, beyond the future government decisions on the Belt and Road Initiative Memorandum.


4.     Looking to the future, can you share with us the areas in which you intend to work to deepen the bilateral relationship, perhaps finding a solution to reduce the growing trade deficit between the two countries? What are the challenges and prospects?


The promotion of our exports to China with a view to rebalancing the trade balance must be pursued through increasingly better access to the Chinese market, an absolutely priority goal of our action, which we must address not only at the bilateral level but also by contributing as protagonists to the relations between the European Union and China. The bilateral strategic partnership offers us all the channels and tools to develop these actions: in this perspective, important opportunities will be the next Joint Economic-Commercial Commission, to be convened in Italy in the near future, and the negotiation for the next three-year action plan Italy-China. The qualified participation of our companies in the main Chinese fairs offers a significant framework for promoting our excellence, including high-end products. As Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tajani emphasized, our action is inspired by "diplomacy of growth," which is based on the articulated promotion of our exports and the internationalization of our companies, including SMEs, which constitute an important part of our industrial fabric. China continues to represent a strategic market, but we must also make Italy more strategic for China, especially in terms of qualified Chinese investments that promote our technological growth.


5.     In the preceding months, you participated in a series of cultural events in China, including the opening of the exhibition in Shanghai dedicated to Botticelli and the Renaissance. Do you believe that culture can be a tool to strengthen dialogue and cooperation between the two countries?


Cultural relations have always been a privileged tool for dialogue between China and Italy and a comparative advantage compared to the majority of other countries. In recent months, Italian art and culture have been extraordinary protagonists of the agenda between the two countries, which are unanimously recognized as "cultural superpowers." In China, Italy is seen as the heir to an ancient civilization that, like the Chinese one, has marked the course of history and the development of humanity. In the years to come, cultural diplomacy will continue to occupy a crucial position in the framework of bilateral relations with China. In a complex international context like the current one, aggravated by the war of aggression in Ukraine, international cooperation in the cultural field is even more necessary as a valuable tool for dialogue, mutual understanding, and strategic communication between states and peoples. In this sense, we work to project a diverse cultural offering for the Chinese public, both in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, but also in lesser-known urban centers. Referring only to the exhibition sector set up in 2023, I want to mention that on the Masterpieces of self-portrait from the collection of the Uffizi Galleries, "The Light of Ancient Roman Civilization" at the China World Art Museum; the stunning exhibition of Botticelli and the Renaissance that you mentioned; the exhibition on the civilizations of the great rivers; but also the recent opening in Beijing of another splendid exhibition on Pompeii from the Archaeological Museum of Naples, followed in the coming weeks by exhibitions on Titian in Hong Kong and on Caravaggio in Shanghai. Great success, to switch to the contemporary, was achieved by the exhibition on the Triptych of the Centenary and the birth of Italian design and the one that exhibited masterpieces of the Farnesina Collection in Xi'an. For 2024, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the bilateral strategic partnership and the 700th anniversary of the death of Marco Polo, we are also working on an ambitious program of initiatives to present to the public, among other things, the figure of the well-known explorer, who here represents - together with Matteo Ricci - one of the models of dialogue between East and West.


By: Avv. Carlo Diego D'Andrea, Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce of the European Union in China