ROME Ė Italy and China signed an agreement to cooperate on Beijingís global infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, sealing an accord that has alarmed the United States and European allies.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, on a six-day visit to Europe, and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte presided over the signing ceremony in Rome. Italyís support for the Belt and Road Initiative is a diplomatic victory for Xi, whose ambitious plan for an international network of ports, roads, railways and pipelines has faced criticism for the opacity of some deals.
Italy is the first member of the Group of Seven major advanced economies to sign up to the initiative. Many Western governments see the plan as a Chinese push for geopolitical influence, not just for business. Italy has in recent weeks sought to reassure the US and European Union that its agreement with Beijing isnít legally binding and doesnít weaken Italyís commitment to its Western political and security alliances.
US diplomats and EU officials have criticized Italyís move, warning that Chinaís plans could increase its influence over other countries and weaken Western cohesion.
Xiís visit comes as EU leaders are debating how to respond to Chinaís fast-rising global power. The EU, which wants to defend an international order based on rules and reciprocity, fears coming under pressure from China to accept its investments, and from the US to keep them at bay. In particular, the bid by Huawei Technologies Co. to supply Europe with 5G mobile-internet equipment has sparked security fears in Washington, which has urged its allies to exclude the Chinese company from sensitive infrastructure.
In the coming days, Xi is set to visit Monaco and the French Riviera, before heading to Paris for talks about the wider relationship between China and Europe with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The three European leaders are expected to brief Xi about the EUís shifting approach to China, including European demands for greater reciprocity on economic access for trade and investment.
Italyís bilateral embrace of Chinaís prestige project has irritated many of its EU partners when the bloc is looking for a more robust collective stance toward Beijing. Italian officials have stressed that Saturdayís agreement, and a number of associated business deals, donít cover any award of 5G contracts to China.
The business deals between the two countries that have accompanied Xiís trip have been in sectors ranging from energy and transport to industry and finance. Italian kitchen maker Snaidero said it agreed on a joint venture with Hi-Season Trading Co. Ltd. to distribute its products in China, while Italian bank UBI Banca SpA announced a collaboration agreement with Chinese machinery importer Sumec International Technology.