Italy signs ‘Silk Road’ pact

Signed and sealed: Xi greeting Conte before the signing of the memorandum of understanding on China’s Belt and Road Initiative at Villa Madama in Rome. — Bloomberg.

Rome: Italy has signed a “non-binding” protocol with China to take part in Beijing’s new “Silk Road” of transport and trade links stretching from Asia to Europe.

In doing so, Italy became the first G7 country to sign up for the massive project, which has sparked unease in the US and the European Union as China aspires to play a greater world role.

Visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte both attended a ceremony for the signing of 29 memoranda of understanding, which Italian media said were worth ¤5-7bil (RM23-32bil).

Also signing the accords were the chairman of China’s chairman National Development Commission He Lifeng, and Italian deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, who also holds the economic development portfolio.

After a brief meeting with Conte, Xi and his wife Peng Liyan flew to Palermo, Sicily for a private visit to the Palazzo dei Normanni.

Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore said the value of the Chinese investments could rise to ¤20bil (RM92bil) but would for now be limited to the strategic ports of Genoa and Trieste.

Italy has rolled out the red carpet for Xi, who on Friday sought to allay Western unease over his transformational infrastructure initiative by stressing the US$1 trillion (RM4.06 trillion) project’s mutual benefits.

Italian firms to benefit include the Ansaldo group, which wins a contract for making turbines, and the Danieli group, which lands a ¤1.1bil (RM5.06bil) deal to build an iron and steel plant in Azerbaijan.

The accords also foresee the opening up of the Chinese market for Italian oranges as well as a partnership for Chinese tourism giant Ctrip, notably with Rome’s airports.

Cultural tie-ups including town twinnings are also on the agenda, and Beijing is pushing to have several Serie A football matches played in China – although that would currently contravene regulations of the game’s governing body FIFA.

“We are well aware, with this memorandum of understanding, that there is risk as well as opportunity,” said secretary of state for the economy Michele Geraci, who spent a decade working in China.

Italy has made a point of giving Xi a fulsome welcome, despite the misgivings in Washington and Brussels.

Conte is due to sign further deals during a visit to China next month.

Their aim was to correct the imbalance in which Chinese goods were arriving in Italy, but not enough Italian goods were going the other way, said Di Maio.

Critics say Beijing’s ambitious maritime, rail and road venture is “predatory” and overwhelmingly favours Chinese companies.But Xi rejected any idea of a conflict of interest 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 responded that business must go “in both directions... with fair competition, respecting intellectual property rights while fighting counterfeit goods”.

In what perceived as a snub, Italy’s far-right deputy Prime Minis­ter Matteo Salvini did not attend the state dinner for Xi at Mattarella’s Quirinal Palace, having stated that Italy would be “no-one’s colony”.Salvini has notably urged caution about using Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s next generation 5G mobile technology. 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, which China has strongly rejected, calling them “abnormal, immoral” attacks. — AFP

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