Italy’s president has told visiting Chinese leader Xi Jinping that China’s new “Silk Road” linking Europe and Asia must be a “two-way street”, addressing concerns that the huge infrastructure project will amplify Beijing’s global influence.
During Mr Xi’s two-day official state visit, Italy is expected to become the first major democracy to sign a memorandum of understanding to join China’s “Belt and Road” initiative.
The programme aims to invest in ports, roads, airports and railways in Asia, Africa and Europe to create a conduit for trade and China’s construction industry. The US and Italy’s European partners see it as a threat as China seeks to project its power.
While President Xi was getting red-carpet honours in Rome, the European Union said it was preparing its own strategy to counter growing Chinese influence, described as a “systemic rival”.
The EU is worried about unfair competition from Chinese companies, which are controlled by the Chinese government and benefit from the state’s financial backing.
The US is in a trade war with China, imposing tariffs on billions of euros of each other’s goods, and wants to limit China’s ambitions to dominate future technologies.
The US and Europe complain that Beijing forces foreign companies to give up technological know-how in exchange for a presence in the country.
Mr Xi’s visit is expected to produce dozens of deals worth billions of euros alongside the infrastructure framework covering cultural exchanges, sports co-operation and business deals.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella told a joint press conference with Mr Xi that the infrastructure initiative is “the ideal framework for increasing joint collaboration”, to stimulate Chinese investments in Italy and open the Chinese market to Italian exports.
But he also addressed concerns that Beijing’s state apparatus would be the real winner.
“The old Silk Road was an instrument of knowledge among peoples, of sharing, and of mutual discoveries. So, too, the new one must be a two-way street, along which travel not only merchandise but also ideas, talents, knowledge, long-term solutions to common problems and future projects,” he said.
He added that both countries could reap the benefits of economic co-operation “founded on fair competition, respecting industrial and intellectual property and in the common fight against counterfeiting”.
Mr Xi told reporters the importance of China’s relationship with Italy goes beyond bilateral ties.
“China appreciates Italy’s willingness to play a positive role in developing a healthy and stable China-Europe relationship, and its devotion in pushing forward the connectivity of Asia and Europe,” he said.
Mr Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, were greeted with full honours in the courtyard of the presidential palace in Rome, overseen by the regal guard while a band played the Chinese and Italian anthems.
He later attended a wreath-laying ceremony at Italy’s monument for the unknown soldier, and will visit parliament and attend a state dinner where Andrea Bocelli will perform.
The state visit, reciprocating one by Mr Mattarella two years ago, was being held under maximum security with large areas of Rome closed.
Chinese investments in Italy have totalled 22 billion euros (£19 billion), officials said, well below that of other European nations. Britain, for example, has received investments worth £68 billion.
Italian exports into China lag other nations by a decade or more, officials said, running at 13 billion euros (£11 billion) compared with 20 billion euros (£17 billion) for France and 87 billion euros (£74 billion) for Germany.