Southeast Asia could earn interest from Italy’s Indo-Pacific investment

Southeast Asia represents one of the focus sub-regions in the context of Italy’s nascent ambitions in the Indo-Pacific

Published : 17 Jul 2023 07:47 PM
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The Italian Navy has announced that preparations are underway to send the flagship aircraft carrier Cavour, along with its battle group, to the Indo-Pacific between late 2023 and early 2024. In April 2023 another Italian ship, the Morosini, began a multi-month deployment to the region. These developments are part of what has been branded as the ‘Italian Pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific.

While Italy’s traditional geostrategic area of reference is the ‘enlarged Mediterranean’, the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific from an economic and geopolitical standpoint has piqued Rome’s interest. Italy does not yet possess an articulated Indo-Pacific strategy. But a document released by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 2022 underscores how Rome’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific theatre is already longstanding. Present and future initiatives are meant to be multilateral, inclusive and substantially in line with the European Union’s strategic priorities.

A key interest of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government is signalling the importance of upholding the rules-based order in the region. Rome’s strategic outreach in the Indo-Pacific is primarily addressed towards substantial regional players. 

Meloni’s visit to India in March 2023 was instrumental in relaunching defence talks, and diplomatic efforts with Japan have elevated Japan–Italy relations to the level of a ‘strategic partnership’ since January 2023.

While often under the media’s radar, Italian foreign policy has also already designated Southeast Asia as a significant zone of interest, in terms of both the concerns of individual states and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A top priority has been the expansion of trade and economic interconnections. In line with this, since 2017, the annual High-Level Dialogue on ASEAN-Italy Economic Relations has grouped together political and business leaders to discuss possible avenues to increase the volume of exchanges in what is framed as a ‘strategic market’ for Italian enterprises.

In parallel, Italy has been particularly keen to gear up its security role, especially in the maritime domain. Between May and June 2023, the Morosini carried out different activities in Southeast Asia, paying visits to ports like Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok, participating in defence exhibitions in Malaysia and Singapore and notably taking part for the first time in the Indonesia-led multinational search and rescue ‘Komodo-23’ exercise.

Defence relations with Jakarta are especially on the rise. The Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto visited the country in December 2022 to boost defence and industrial cooperation. 

The visit can also be read through the lens of the 2021 deal between Italian shipbuilding company Fincantieri and the Indonesian Navy for the acquisition of eight frigates, which represents an important milestone in the ongoing modernisation of the Indonesian armed forces.

The articulation of an official Indo-Pacific strategy is 

then a fundamental step forward for Italy in order to 

answer strategic questions, keep building on a quite

 successful record and clearly delineate its priorities 

and goals for future engagement with Southeast Asia

Another key regional partner is Vietnam. In 2013, Rome and Hanoi decided to upgrade their relationship to the level of a strategic partnership. Under this framework, the two nations have been conducting a dialogue on defence-related issues.

Italy has also been a frontrunner in forging ties with different regional organisations in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Pacific Islands Forum, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and ASEAN. 

The attention of Italian business and diplomatic communities towards ASEAN has manifested through the intensification of institutional meetings involving the two sides. In September 2020, ASEAN Foreign Ministers decided to confer to Italy the status of Development Partner, in a move that further deepens and institutionalises cooperation in sectors such as cybersecurity, maritime development and anti-piracy.

Southeast Asia represents one of the focus sub-regions in the context of Italy’s nascent ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. But there are important open-ended issues to reflect upon. One relates to how long-term this activism will be. While Meloni’s Italian government has put the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia on its geopolitical map, in the medium to long term there is the risk that, with the ongoing war in Ukraine, Italy may eventually reshift its attention and resources closer to Italy’s core strategic perimeter.

There is also the question of Italy’s relationship with China. The Italian government has yet to make a final decision about the renewal of a Belt and Road Initiative-related memorandum signed in 2019. While some underline that Italy has gradually distanced itself from China and will likely decide not to extend the agreement, Meloni has highlighted that Rome could potentially stay on good terms with China even outside the Belt and Road Initiative framework. Yet, recent declarations by the Chinese Ambassador to Italy hint that an abandonment of the memorandum would inevitably have an impact on the relationship.

This begs the question of how Italy will position itself if China increases its assertiveness in the South China Sea. How concretely Italy would respond to a contingency in the area is not easy to predict. 

The articulation of an official Indo-Pacific strategy is then a fundamental step forward for Italy in order to answer strategic questions, keep building on a quite successful record and clearly delineate its priorities and goals for future engagement with Southeast Asia.

Fabio Figiaconi is PhD candidate in the Brussels School of Governance, Vrije Universiteit Brussel. 

Source: East Asia Forum