By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Rome on Thursday at the start of a three-day visit during which he will sign an accord drawing Italy into his giant “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan, despite U.S. opposition.
Italy, seeking new export deals to boost its stalled economy, will become the first Group of Seven major industrialised nation to join the multi-billion-dollar project, which is designed to improve Beijing’s global trade reach.
Xi is due to meet Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Friday and is set to sign the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Saturday before travelling to the Sicilian capital Palermo.
More than 30 deals, worth up to 7 billion euros (£6.08 billion), are also expected to be agreed during the trip in an array of sectors, including accords opening up the northern ports of Trieste and Genoa to Chinese containers.
“We are at the heart of the Mediterranean, yet the Chinese are everywhere in the region except here,” junior industry minister Michele Geraci said in a video on his Facebook page.
However, the prospect of the accord has caused ructions both within the coalition government and among Italy’s allies — notably in Washington, where the White House National Security Council urged Rome not to give “legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project”.
And on the very day that Xi flew into Rome, European Union leaders in Brussels considered adopting a more defensive strategy towards China, having last week branded the world’s second largest economic power a “systemic rival”.
The European Union has grown increasingly frustrated by what it sees as China’s slowness to open its economy and by a surge of Chinese takeovers in critical EU sectors, accusing it of distorting local markets.
Rome says such concerns should not stop it improving its ties and points to the fact that 13 EU countries have already signed MOUs with China, including Hungary, Poland and Greece.
“We have weighed up all the risks and I think this is a great result for Italy,” said Geraci, who lived in China for a decade before joining the government last year.
Geraci later added that a Chinese company might even come to the rescue of Italy’s perennially sickly national airline, Alitalia, which is struggling to find the foreign suitors it needs to stay solvent.
However, in a concession to Washington, the government moved hastily this week to protect its telecoms sector from foreign predators amid concerns that Italy might expose itself to hi-tech espionage as a result of closer links with Beijing.
China has shrugged off the controversy, with its vice foreign minister saying it was “hard to avoid misunderstandings” over the burgeoning Belt and Road project.
The initiative is aimed at creating a modern-day Silk Road, reviving the ancient trade routes that connected east and west. More than 150 countries, regions and international groups have already signed pacts with Beijing.
After his stay in Italy, Xi will fly on to Monaco and France at the head of a 500-strong delegation.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alison Williams)