Italian Interaction with Indo-Pacific: Slow but Steady

The Indo-Pacific has rapidly become the global geopolitical and geo-economic epicenter, encompassing roughly two-thirds of the world’s population, global GDP, and international maritime trade, as well as some of the world’s most important strategic challenges. By Indo-Pacific, we generally refer to a macro-region stretching from East Africa to West America – thus decentralizing China’s strategic importance – with significant normative (compliance with international law), strategic (application of the same), and commercial connotations.

Precisely because of its importance, in the past 15 years a number of countries have paid increasing attention to this region. Europe reached this strategic awareness late, although it’s making up for lost ground: France started first with FONOPs (freedom of navigation and overflight operations) in 2014, Germany and the Netherlands waited another six years, and the United Kingdom (now outside the EU) and the European Union only published specific policies in 2021.

Italy is seemingly missing from this list: a nation focused on the Enlarged Mediterranean (“Mediterraneo Allargato”) and therefore the only G7 and NATO Quint country apparently uninterested in this new global strategic-economic fulcrum. In spite of appearances, however, the reality is quite different: Italy has been moving implicitly for years now, and is interacting with the Indo-Pacific in a substantial way, as briefly discussed in this article.

Italian Diplomacy Gets Active in the Indo-Pacific

Rome’s diplomatic approach began 16 years ago. In 2007 it became a Dialogue Partner of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF, comprising 18 States), before Singapore, Germany, and Spain. Despite the great difficulties arising from the global financial crisis, and later from the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy has continued its slow but steady approach to the Indo-Pacific, notwithstanding the many changes of government and the numerous challenges of the Enlarged Mediterranean itself.

In 2013, it entered into a strategic partnership with Vietnam. Furthermore, over the past five years, the transition from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific (far from being a mere change of nomenclature) has represented a renewed awareness of new transregional challenges to international law and the rules-based order, a condition which has spurred greater involvement, including from Italy. In 2018 Rome finalized a new strategic partnership with South Korea. The following year it became Dialogue Partner of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA, comprising 23 States). In 2020, another considerable agreement took shape, this time as Development Partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, 10 States).

In 2021, a substantial Italy-India-Japan trilateral platform was formed to support the international order. Lastly, in 2023 the Meloni government is successfully reaping the fruits of the diplomatic efforts of the past years, not only by relaunching the strategic partnership with Abu Dhabi, but also by signing two significant strategic partnerships with Tokyo and New Delhi. The former allows, among other things, to develop the GCAP program; it was signed a few days ago – after the Italian Prime Minister co-inaugurated the 2023 Raisina Dialogue – and was accompanied by a new agreement. Italy’s intense diplomatic work is therefore increasingly evident, in terms of both the number of partnerships and their significance.

A Wide-scoped Approach

If, on the one hand, Italy has favored political-diplomatic means in its approach to the Indo-Pacific, on the other there are further elements that contribute to strengthening the “Italian pivot” towards this macro-region.

Despite the serious and prolonged repercussions of the global financial crisis and the ongoing pandemic, Italy’s trade with Indo-Pacific countries has followed a positive trajectory. According to the latest UN data, Italy’s trade with the 10 largest trading countries in the Indo-Pacific has grown by more than a sixth in the last 10 years. There’s an even more robust trend for Italian defense procurement, which has grown by almost 50 percent in the same time frame, according to SIPRI data. Moreover, there are recent projects of enormous proportions: The creation of a new class of frigates for both the U.S. and Indonesia, as well as the development of the GCAP project – in equal partnership with the UK and Japan – for the creation of a 6th generation military aircraft, likely to become the object of export programs to various partners.

In addition to commercial interests, Italy is also engaged in the area of (trans)regional security. This is because the enlarged Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific intersect in the latter’s western boundaries, more specifically in the Western Indian Ocean, an area in which Italy has been engaged for many years with leading roles in multilateral missions (EU and NATO). Further, Italy was in command of the EU Operation AGENOR until a few weeks ago, which is active in the Hormuz Strait, while in the coming months Rome will deploy its Morosini OPV vessel on a patrol and training mission in the Indo-Pacific, along with other vessels from different partner countries. This last mission represents a broader and more multilateral evolution of the Indo-Pacific tour carried out by the Carabiniere frigate in 2017.

Official Strategy for the Indo-Pacific?

Italy’s rapidly-growing commitment to this region – diplomatically, economically, and strategically – and its credentials therefore lay solid foundations for the formulation of an official Italian strategy for the Indo-Pacific, on the same path taken by other allies and the EU itself. By virtue of the cardinal principles of Italian foreign policy – multilateralism, respect for international law, propensity for dialogue – this potential Italian strategy would assume very specific characteristics, thereby focusing more on soft power (diplomacy, politics, trade, science, culture) than on hard power, in the latter case limiting the country’s strategic efforts to occasional FONOPs, likely carried out multilaterally. This would place it close to the goals and means of the EU (as implicitly stated), Germany, the Netherlands, and to an extent France too, with a certain strategic distance from (and complementarity with) the Anglosphere strategies of the U.S., UK, and Australia.

It’s hard to say if and when this official policy will take shape. In the meantime, however, a crucial aspect should be highlighted: The objectives, means, and rhetoric of countries like Italy are now entirely compatible with those of most Indo-Pacific nations (and ASEAN itself). This can only represent a promising start for this unfolding yet increasingly-intense Italian approach, since it is developing while taking into explicit account not only Europe’s shared interest, but also those of the Indo-Pacific itself.

The Italian version of this article is published at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), Italy. The author has translated the piece into English and it is being published here with permission from the IAI.