In the weeks before Italy joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative last year, top foreign ministry officials in Rome made a flurry of calls to US and European ambassadors, trying to persuade them there was nothing to fear from the relationship with Beijing. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced the drive for close ties between Italy and China, even as Italy makes European solidarity a top priority, according to Manlio Di Stefano, Italian undersecretary of foreign affairs. “We want to be as close as possible [with China], but we know very well where we are: we are in Europe,” Di Stefano told the South China Morning Post on Tuesday. “Everybody knows that Italy is very proud to be one of the EU’s founders. We have never looked at the geopolitical strategy we have [with China] as some alternative to the European Union. We believe that multilateralism is fundamental. That’s why we always kept very thorough dialogue with China, and we want to keep on doing that.” Italy has the highest death toll in the world from the pandemic - more than 105,000 people in the country have contracted the virus, and more than 12,000 have died. Its northern regions – the financial centre and manufacturing heartland of the euro zone’s third-largest economy – have been particularly hard hit and economists are forecasting a deep recession. Climbing out of that recession did not mean choosing between Beijing and Brussels, Di Stefano said. “The crisis will be so deep when the situation would be restarted, everyone – every country – will need [more] effort,” Di Stefano said. “China will have the same kind of need at the end. The European crisis, the Western crisis will obviously have an impact on the Chinese economy because the Chinese market is the Western market. We have to find a common approach to restart our economies.” Concerns are growing in the European Union that China’s widely publicised efforts to help struggling countries like Italy might be seen as weakness in the bloc. China has sent face masks and test kits for the virus to a number of European countries, including Italy. But last week, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said “France and Germany combined have donated to Italy more masks than China”. The message was directed, in part, at Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio. Defending his controversial decision to make Italy the first major Western power to join China’s belt and road economic programme when he was deputy prime minister last year, Di Maio, from the populist Five Star Movement, said the medical supplies proved the need for a closer relationship with China. “Those who scoffed at our participation in the Belt and Road Initiative now have to admit that investing in that friendship allowed us to save lives in Italy,” Di Maio said in an Italian television interview, prompting criticism from members of the Democratic Party, with which the Five Star Movement has formed a fragile coalition government. Di Stefano, who is also from the Five Star Movement, echoed the minister’s view. “All the other Western countries were saying we cannot believe in [the] level playing field that China was granting to us, and we say we want to pay this political price, but we want to see the result at the end,” he said. With the number of patients with Covid-19 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – as well as infections dropping in Italy, so too was the demand for new medical products. “We thank China for [the supplies]. The doctors who came to Italy to help were also very helpful. I don’t think we are looking … at this moment to fulfil some more needs, because luckily the numbers are decreasing in Italy now,” Di Stefano said. Apart from China and the EU, the US also pledged to Italy US$100 million worth of what US President Donald Trump referred to as “medical things”. Asked about Italy’s ability to be on good terms with both the US and China, Di Stefano said it was “by behaviour”. “We are very famous for cooperation, not for wars. We are very famous for art and music, not for colonialism – I know this could create some smiles,” he said, without referring to former colonies such as Libya and Ethiopia. But Di Stefano refused to be drawn on a complaint from a prominent Italian scientist that Chinese propaganda outlets had twisted his comments to suggest the coronavirus originated in Italy, rather than China, where the first cases of the coronavirus were reported. Giuseppe Remuzzi, director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, said last month that a “strange pneumonia” was circulating in northern Italy as long ago as November. The first reported coronavirus cases in China were in December, and Chinese media seized on Remuzzi’s comments, highlighting the November reference. Remuzzi described the Chinese reports as propaganda, adding that of course the virus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. He said his key point was not where the virus came from, but how far it had spread before it was discovered. Asked about the complaint, Di Stefano said: “I have my own opinion, but at this moment, talking about the responsibilities makes no sense. We talk about the solution. Then everyone will look for the responsibility when it will be the time. “But, anyway, it was stated very well by lots of experts that the virus came from wild animals,” he said, agreeing that it was not part of the Italian culinary tradition to consume such wildlife. Sign up now and get a 10% discount (original price US$400) off the China AI Report 2020 by SCMP Research. Learn about the AI ambitions of Alibaba, Baidu & JD.com through our in-depth case studies, and explore new applications of AI across industries. The report also includes exclusive access to webinars to interact with C-level executives from leading China AI companies (via live Q&A sessions). Offer valid until 31 May 2020.