US, Europe eye closely as China, Italy deepen ties

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Italian President Sergio Mattarella review the honor guard at the Quirinale Presidential Palace, in Rome, Friday, March 22, 2019. Jinping is launching a two-day official visit aimed at deepening economic and cultural ties with Italy through an ambitious infrastructure building program called "Belt and Road" that has raised suspicions among Italy's U.S. and European allies. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

By COLLEEN BARRY Associated Press

MILAN (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping was received with full red-carpet honors by his Italian counterpart Friday, launching a two-day visit aimed at deepening ties through an ambitious infrastructure program that has raised suspicions among Italy’s U.S. and European allies.

President Sergio Mattarella greeted Xi in the courtyard of the presidential palace, overseen by the regal guard while a band played the Chinese and Italian anthems. Xi was accompanied by his wife, Peng Liuan, while Mattarella was joined by his daughter Laura, who accompanies the widowed president on official engagements.

Xi later will attend a wreath-laying ceremony at Italy’s monument for the unknown soldier, visit parliament and attend a state dinner where Andrea Bocelli will perform. But the centerpiece of the state visit will be Saturday’s signing of a memorandum of understanding to make Italy the first major democracy to join China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, a huge infrastructure project that aims to better connect China to the rest of the world and that critics say is a vehicle for Chinese political influence.

U.S. officials are also skeptical of the burgeoning new ties, which they say favor China’s interests. Critics have also questioned the transparency of the initiative and the potential for corruption with state-directed investment. European governments declined to sign a joint declaration on the “Belt and Road,” arguing it lacked standards on financing and transparency.

As though to underscore the concerns, European Union leaders were meeting in Brussels on Friday to devise plans to counter China, a country they describe as a “systemic rival.”

The European Council was discussing on Friday a 10-point strategy before an EU-China summit next month. The EU wants to “fully address the distortive effects of foreign state ownership” and “achieve a more balanced and reciprocal economic relationship.”

Mattarella said Xi’s visit was an expression of the “solidity of the bond and mutual respect” between the two countries that celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2020. But the head of state also told Chinese state media that the framework for investments needs to secure transparency, security and equity.

Chinese investments in Italy have totaled 22 billion euros (nearly $25 billion), officials said, well below that of other European nations. Britain, for example, has received investments worth 80 billion euros.

Italian exports into China, meanwhile, lag other nations by a decade or more, officials said, running at 13 billion euros compared with 20 billion euros for France and 87 billion euros for Germany.

China expert Francesco Sisci said that Mattarella’s emphasis on transparency indicates “that he fears there hasn’t been enough transparency so far in relations between China and Italy. Allies may also have expressed to him their worries about how Italy is managing the new relationship with China.”

“The accent is that Italy risks becoming a Trojan horse for the Chinese invasion,” he said.

Sisci noted Italy’s contrasting interests, between its ties to Western allies within the European Union and NATO, and its ambition to become a bridge linking Asia and Africa with Europe.

Xi’s visit was being held under maximum security with large swaths of the capital closed to protect his movements.


Sam Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.