Chinese leader visits Italy with focus on infrastructure deal
His Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella hailed a bond of mutual respect between the two countries.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has been received with full red-carpet honours by his Italian counterpart as he launched a two-day visit aimed at deepening ties through an ambitious infrastructure programme.
The visit to Rome has raised concerns among Italy’s US and European allies.
President Sergio Mattarella greeted Mr Xi in the courtyard of the presidential palace, overseen by the regal guard while a band played the Chinese and Italian anthems.
The Chinese leader was accompanied by his wife Peng Liuan, while Mr Mattarella was joined by his daughter Laura, who accompanies the widowed president on official engagements.
Mr Xi 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 centrepiece 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, which critics say is a vehicle for Chinese political influence.
US officials are sceptical of the burgeoning new ties, which they say favour Beijing’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 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”.
Mr Mattarella said Mr Xi’s visit was an expression of the “solidity of the bond and mutual respect” between the two countries which celebrates 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 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.