BEIRUT — Large, imposing and glittering in the sun. On Thursday Italy's offshore patrol ship, ITS Francesco Morosini, entered Beirut's port for the first time. The aim of its visit, set to end on Friday? To "say hello" to the Lebanese people, and reinforce diplomatic ties between Lebanon and Italy despite Rome's recent pivot to countries further east, according to the ship's Commander, Giovanni Monno.
The state-of-the-art ship is returning home from its six-month mission to the Indo-Pacific region, with a 24-hour stop-off in Beirut, leaving again on Friday. The Italian Multipurpose Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV), equipped with 137 crew, has spent 181 days at sea. It visited a number of ports in Asia, completing joint training exercises, as the area grows in strategic importance for Rome amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.
Lebanon and Italy
On the back of the ship, dressed in a pearl white uniform and decorated with a number of medals, stands the commanding officer of the ITS Francesco Morosini, Commander Giovanni Monno, who gives L'Orient Today a tour of the vessel.
Speaking with a large smile on his face, Commander Monno explains the personal meaning of this visit to Beirut.
“It was very important to be here, to say hello to our friends and show the Lebanese people how important Lebanon is to us,” he tells L’Orient Today.
"Do you know how strong the relationship is between the Italian navy and the Lebanese navy? And how strong the relationship is between Lebanon and Italy? We have strong collaboration in the maritime field...We have come here before for bi-lateral training, exchanging professionalism and experiences," he added.
The ship, which was commissioned in 2022, has a dual military and humanitarian purpose. Alongside being fitted with a Vulcan gun and a small caliber gun, the back of the boat can be transformed into an intensive care ward to aid injured civilians. It can also provide electricity and water offshore — helpful in the case of a natural disaster, an Italian navy spokesperson told L'Orient Today.
Italy's pivot to the Indo-Pacific
Since the election last year of right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy has been turning its attention towards eastern Asia, giving more support to the US and its allies in the region. The pivot comes amid rising concerns about China's role in the region — notably its relationship with Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
Commander Monno's description of his recent Indo-Pacific mission as that of "naval diplomacy" is, perhaps, a hint at Rome's growing unease about China's attempts to claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea.
There are concerns that this major shipping route, which accounts for more than a fifth of global trade, could become a flashpoint with global consequences in terms of security and the economy. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies — $3.37 trillion of trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016.
"All seas are interconnected. Challenges in the Indo-Pacific can also hamper trade in the Mediterranean Sea," Commander Monno told L'Orient Today.
"We are convinced that all the sea should be used by the international community and ruled by law. It's very important to show how important the freedom of navigation is inside of all of the basins, all over the world," he added.
According to the Italian international relations think tank, Istituto Affari Internazionali, Italy is a "latecomer" in Asia, having traditionally focused on the Mediterranean region and Africa.
“Rome is catching up fast with the other major European countries that in recent years have outlined their visions for the region,” they add in their analysis paper on Italy and Asia. Rome's pivot follows that of other European countries: The British warships HMS Tamar and HMS Spey are on a five-year deployment to the Indo-Pacific region; in 2021, France sent warships for joint exercises in the South China Sea, and Germany in 2021 sent the Bayern naval frigate to Japan.
Similarly, the ITS Francesco Morosini conducted a number of training exercises with other navies, stopping at ports in Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and India.
With Italy's attention moving eastwards, Commander Monno reinforced that the Mediterranean and other seas in the region nevertheless remain important to the navy. In August the ITS Francesco Morosini conducted a one-month mission in the strait of Hormuz, an important shipping route between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
"We have been involved in the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASoH) to support the security of the sea lines and to push on the free use of navigation lines. The gulf is important for all of our strategic interests."
The Europe initiative was set up after a series of attacks on commercial shipping which resulted in the detention of the Stena Impero, a Swedish oil tanker flying a British flag, by Iran in July 2019.
Indo-Pacific deployment of the ITS Francesco Morosini in numbers:
- At sea for 181 days and 2,900 hours: It left port in Italy on April 6 and is set to return on Oct. 4
- Completed 33,000 nautical miles: It visited 18 countries and 19 different ports.
- Training with foreign navies on 21 occasions: "The aim of this mission is naval diplomacy in support of our national and foreign directives and also in support of our shipyard building capabilities," according to Monno.
"It's been an impressive and intense deployment for us and our families. It's a huge sea trial — and a test trying to investigate if everything is working properly. At the end of the six-month deployment we can say our mission has been accomplished," Monno concluded.