The Cavour heads East: Italy's defense diplomacy.

Like many European countries, Italy looks to the East: the future deployment of the Italian Navy’s aircraft carrier Cavour, and its main stops, draw the map of Italy’s defense diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region.

Soft and Hard Power: The Art of Using Selective Warships

The planned deployment of the Cavour should not overlook two other important deployments:

The second ship in the new PPA class of offshore patrol vessels in name but clearly a frigate, in fact, ITS Morosini will sail east for five months (April 6-Sept 13), passing Pakistan (August), India (August), Singapore for IMDEX (May 1-6), Indonesia, Malaysia Vietnam, Thailand and then South Korea and Japan June 21-25. This is pure hard power.

In addition, the Vespucci training sailboat of the Italian Navy will travel for 22 months and visit 28 countries: that is, soft power. China is clearly the target, as Italy wants more than just a seat in the region.

Defense diplomacy, programs and export

For Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, geopolitics, defense issues and arms exports are deeply interconnected. The defense relationship with Japan is illustrative of this multifaceted policy: the long defense partnership (dating back to the 1920s) has jumped to the strategic level since the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Italy (January).

Aerospace has always been the driving factor: both countries have an F-35 assembly and certification plant (Cameri in Italy and Nagoya in Japan); Italy has been training Japanese pilots in Sardinia since 2021, and Leonardo Helicopters has partnered with Mitsui Bussan for the commercialization of the AW-139. 

So it’s no surprise that this partnership has extended to the Global Combat Air Program, the next-generation fighter being developed with Britain. This program unites Leonardo and Elettronica with Mitsubishi Electric.

Other countries will be explored by Italian diplomats: India, as previously reported, and Indonesia, where a contract for six Fremm frigates was signed in June 2021 but has never entered into force due to lack of budget and despite hard lobbying Of Rome… until now.

challenges and options

The ambitious roadmap drawn up by Italian diplomats and the Ministry of Defence, in which the Navy plays an important role, will likely face some challenges, leading its authors to make difficult decisions.

First, it is taken for granted that Italy’s diplomatic activity in the Indo-Pacific will grow and become more consistent, year after year. This new region is seen as an extension of its challenges in the “wider Mediterranean,” where Italy is an active and effective ally of the United States and an active member of NATO.

On the other hand, Italy will also play its own cards: the high stakes (4.4 billion euros in Indonesia for the frigates, and potentially more in India) are highly competitive and should mobilize a large part of their administration to support their industry. 

Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now linked by a cooperation and support Memorandum of Understanding with Fincantieri, the industrial arm of Italian naval ambitions.

Finally, Italy will do everything possible to avoid the hard choices that its diplomacy will inevitably face (US vs. China; Pakistan vs. India), but will it succeed? In the eastern Mediterranean, Italy has tried to strike a balance between Turkey, which she has armed for a decade) and Greece, which she has largely ignored, failing to regain her positions in Ankara and convincing Athens.