Italian Deputy Prime Minister and League (Lega) Party head Matteo Salvini strongly opposes giving Chinese conglomerates such as Huawei Technologies access to the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, he said on Friday.
Speaking during a news conference at the Foreign Press Association of Milan, Salvini said he opposed granting Chinese companies market access to areas of national security such as the country’s communications network. His comments were in stark contrast to the seemingly pro-China sympathies of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Salvini’s coalition partner, the Five Star Movement led by fellow Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio.
Salvini made the comments after US President Donald Trump placed Huawei on a federal government blacklist, while the US Justice Department seeks the extradition of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou from Canada on charges of violating Washington’s Iran sanctions.
Salvini, who also serves as interior minister, could in effect block Huawei from building out a fifth-generation (5G) telecom network for reasons of national security.
Salvini, who is in the midst of campaigning for European Parliament elections on May 26, is purposely raising issues that directly put his center-right populist Lega in direct conflict with the radical left Five Star Movement co-founded by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo.
In comments to Milan-based foreign financial journalists, Salvini was clearly taking aim at both Conte and his coalition rival, Di Maio, for making Italy the first G7 economic power to sign a memorandum of understanding to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
White House sources said Trump became highly alarmed that Conte would commit Italy – the world’s fifth-largest economy and America’s most strategic NATO partner – as a full-fledged partner of China’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure program.
“China uses the BRI as a tool to threaten areas of US strategic interest, be it Djibouti or Sicily,” a US official said.
In fact, there are growing concerns in Washington regarding Chinese investment in strategic Italian ports such as Trieste and Genoa.
Answering a question on Italy’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Salvini said Lega, unlike Five Star, was loyal to the NATO alliance.
“We are faithfully loyal to the Atlantic alliance, that someone [Five Star] has put into debate, but not us [Lega],” Salvini said.
Salvini also took issue with Five Star’s move to defund Italian defense spending, such as severely cutting back on purchases of Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-35 fighter jets.
“Others put into question the F-35, we do not. About disarming [our military], this is not useful – it would be economic suicide – and the defense sector is strategic for the next 50 years,” he said, adding, “A disarmed country is an occupied country and [at risk] of being occupied. We have a different position [from] that of M5S.”
Salvini also opened the door to Italy invoking Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the clause that forces all NATO members to come to the defense of a fellow member, in regards to the worsening situation in Libya.
Not only does Libya pose a direct threat to Italy from terrorist cells based in the North African nation but any attack on the Greenstream gas pipeline operated by Italian oil company Eni connecting the Mellitah complex in Libya to Gela, Sicily, could very well push Italy back into recession.
However, Salvini said military intervention in Libya “is the last option.”