Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to allay Western unease over his new Silk Road initiative on Friday by emphasising the vast infrastructure project’s two-way nature as he kicked off a whistlestop European tour in Rome.
Italy has rolled out the red carpet for Xi, who will on Saturday sign a memorandum of understanding for Rome to join the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative despite misgivings in Washington and Brussels.
Italy will be the first Group of Seven most-developed nations to sign up for the Asian giant’s new Silk Road, which critics say is “predatory” and overwhelmingly favours China and Chinese companies.
“Between us, there is no fundamental conflict of interest,” Xi told journalists after talks with his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella.
“China wants commercial exchanges to go both ways and for investment to flow in both directions,” Xi said.
Mattarella said that business must go “in both directions… with fair competition, respecting intellectual property rights and while fighting counterfeit goods.”
– Salvini snub –
Around 1,000 extra police have been deployed around Rome for the state visit before Xi heads to the Sicilian city of Palermo, where his singer wife Peng Liyuan reportedly wants to see the Teatro Massimo opera house.
In what some perceived as a snub, Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said he would not attend Saturday’s state dinner for Xi at Mattarella’s Quirinal Palace.
Salvini has said Italy would be “no-one’s colony” and urged caution about using telecom Chinese giant Huawei’s next generation 5G mobile technology, while his coalition partner Luigi Di Maio is keener for Chinese partnerships.
The United States has warned European allies that Huawei could use its 5G technology as a “backdoor” for spying, a claim that China has strongly rejected, calling them “abnormal, immoral” attacks.
NATO member Italy’s plan to join China’s ambitious maritime, rail and road venture has raised eyebrows among Western allies and within Italy.
“Today we say ‘Italy first’ in trade relations, while remaining US allies, in NATO and in the EU,” Deputy Prime Minister Di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement said on the sidelines of a China-Italy business forum on Friday.
– ‘Vanity project’ –
Debt-ridden Italy is technically in recession and keen to have more business with China.
White House official Garrett Marquis last week tweeted that there was “no need” for Italy to endorse “China’s infrastructure vanity project”.
Xi’s visit comes a week after the European Union released a 10-point plan outlining a shift to more assertive relations with Beijing, warning that China was a “rival” to the bloc as well as its biggest trading partner.
France on Thursday announced that President Emmanuel Macron will hold trade and climate talks on Tuesday with Xi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
As Macron arrived for an EU summit in Brussels, he welcomed what he called Europe’s “awakening” to the challenge posed by China.
But his office struck a more conciliatory tone in announcing Tuesday’s talks, saying it was an opportunity to explain Europe’s strategy and seek “points of convergence between Europe and China”.
The meeting comes ahead of a China-EU summit in Brussels next month, as the bloc struggles to forge Europe-wide China policies.
Beijing is particularly interested in investing in Italian ports to help funnel its products into Europe, amid warnings that Rome must avoid the model of the Greek port of Piraeus, which was taken over by Chinese shipping giant Cosco in 2016.
Supporters of the non-binding memorandum of understanding said that it will lead to China complying with European Union standards, including on the environment and intellectual property, and cannot be compared to debt-inducing deals Beijing has signed with developing countries.
Despite apparent warming ties, Xi is not expected to meet Pope Francis.
The Vatican has diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not Beijing, so the encounter would be unlikely despite an agreement on appointing bishops in China signed last year.
Xi heads to Monaco on Sunday and then on to France to cap his European tour.