Italy's hopes for closer China ties hit by coronavirus flight ban rift

Travellers at Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Fiumicino, near Rome, on Jan 31, 2020. Italy has suspended flights to and from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan in a bid to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ROME (BLOOMBERG) - An Italian ban on flights to and from China has ruffled diplomatic ties with Beijing, less than a year after Rome had positioned itself for a privileged and lucrative relationship by signing up to the Chinese Belt and Road infrastructure project.

Italy on Jan 31 suspended flights to and from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan in a bid to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The ban, due to last until April 28, was the first by a European Union member. The Czech government later followed suit.

China's government is pushing back globally against virus-based travel restrictions, including efforts to convince Italy to rescind its ban.

Vice-Foreign Minister Qin Gang met Italy's ambassador on Feb 6 to protest the halt to flights, and the Foreign Ministry later said in a statement that China is "strongly dissatisfied with the overreaction and restrictions of the Italian side".

At a Monday (Feb 10) meeting of Premier Giuseppe Conte's ministers, the Italian government pledged to stick to its policy of "maximum precaution with the priority of safeguarding the health of all citizens", Mr Conte's office said in a statement.

"Diplomatic relations are relevant and economic issues are fundamental, but the right to health is even more important," Health Minister Roberto Speranza told newspaper Corriere della Sera on Sunday.

The suspension may be lifted if the situation improves, according to an Italian official who asked not to be named discussing a confidential issue.

The diplomatic tiff marks a change from the optimism in Rome after Chinese President Xi Jinping recruited Mr Conte's first government to the Belt and Road plan in March. The resulting Italian-Chinese memorandum of understanding sparked concerns in the US and the European Union over Beijing's push for economic influence in the region.

The Belt and Road memorandum covered works for Italian firms, including energy giant Eni and lender Intesa Sanpaolo, and there is also an agreement between the ports of Trieste and Genoa and China Communications Construction.

Few actual projects have resulted from the memorandum, the Italian official said, adding that part of the reason was slowing growth in China.

Italy's President Sergio Mattarella has sought to mend fences with Beijing. In an open letter to Mr Xi on Feb 2, Mr Mattarella said China can count on Italy's help to tackle the virus. Mr Mattarella on Thursday will host China's ambassador for a concert at the presidential palace.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.