Chinese President Xi Jinping attempted on Friday to assuage Western concerns about his country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by emphasizing the two-way nature of the Silk Road-styled global trade network as he began a whistlestop European tour in Rome.

Xi will on Saturday sign a memorandum of understanding for Rome to join the $1 trillion BRI despite growing unease in Washington and Brussels.

Italy will be the first G7 member to sign up for Xi’s ambitious maritime, rail and road venture, which critics claim is “predatory” and overwhelmingly favors China and Chinese companies.

“Between us, there is no fundamental conflict of interest,” Xi told journalists after talks with his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella.

“China wants commercial exchanges to go both ways and for investment to flow in both directions.”

Mattarella said that business must go “in both directions… with fair competition, respecting intellectual property rights and while fighting counterfeit goods.”

Xi’s visit to Italy is expected to produce dozens of agreements worth billions of euros alongside the infrastructure framework covering business deals, cultural exchanges and sports cooperation.

Salvini ‘snubs’ Xi

In what some see as a snub, Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said he would not attend Saturday’s state dinner for Xi at Mattarella’s Quirinal Palace.

Salvini has said Italy would be “no one’s colony” and expressed misgivings about using Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s next-generation 5G mobile technology, while his coalition partner Luigi Di Maio is more enthusiastic about Chinese partnerships.

The US has warned its European allies that Huawei could use its 5G technology as a “backdoor” for espionage, an allegation that Beijing has vehemently denied and described as “abnormal” and “immoral.”

NATO member Italy’s plan to join the BRI has raised eyebrows among Western allies and within Italy.

‘Infrastructure vanity project’

Technically in recession, debt-ridden Italy is strongly motivated to do more business with China. However, opposition to increased Italian engagement with Beijing remains strong. White House official Garrett Marquis last week tweeted that there was “no need” for Italy to endorse “China’s infrastructure vanity project.”

The Chinese president’s visit comes a week after the European Union released a 10-point plan outlining a shift to more assertive relations with Beijing, warning that China was a “rival” to the 28-member bloc as well as its largest trading partner.

France on Thursday announced that President Emmanuel Macron will hold trade and climate talks on Tuesday with Xi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival for a meeting with his Italian counterpart on Friday at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome. Photo: AFP

As the French president arrived for an EU summit in Brussels, he welcomed what he called Europe’s “awakening” to the challenge posed by China.

But his office was more conciliatory when it announced Tuesday’s talks, saying it was an opportunity to explain Europe’s strategy and seek “points of convergence between Europe and China.”

The meeting comes ahead of a China-EU summit in Brussels next month, as the bloc struggles to develop Europe-wide China policies.

Beijing is particularly keen on investing in Italian ports to help funnel its goods into Europe, amid warnings that Rome must strenuously avoid adopting the model of the Greek port of Piraeus, which was taken over by Chinese shipping giant Cosco in 2016.

Supporters of the non-binding memorandum of understanding said that it will lead to Chinese compliance with EU standards, including on the environment and intellectual property, and cannot be compared to “debt-trap” deals Beijing has signed with developing countries.

Despite signs that relations with the Vatican are improving, Xi is not expected to meet Pope Francis.

The Vatican has diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than Beijing, so such an encounter would be unlikely despite an agreement on appointing bishops in China being inked last year.

Xi heads to Monaco on Sunday and then completes his European tour in France.

– with reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press