Xi Jinping recruits Italy populists for China's Belt and Road Initiative

China's President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping recruited Italy’s populist government into his global Belt and Road development project, with the signing of an accord that has sparked worries in the U.S. and European Union over the Asian power’s push for economic domination.

Italy is the first Group of Seven nation to volunteer for a role in the massive international program, with a memorandum of understanding that the two sides formally approved at the Renaissance-era Villa Madama in Rome on Saturday.

Chinese and Italian companies signed 10 accords potentially worth as much as 20 billion euros ($23 billion), including a leverage effect, at the ceremony, officials said. Xi and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte sat in front of Chinese, Italian and European Union flags for the ceremony in a frescoed hall.

Italy and China must “set up more efficacious relations and improve relations which are already very good,” Conte told Xi earlier at the start of a bilateral meeting, according to a live TV feed of opening remarks.

Eni, Intesa

The business accords involve firms including energy giant Eni, gas pipeline operator Snam SpA, engineering company Ansaldo Energia SpA, and bank Intesa Sanpaolo. The accords also include an agreement between the ports of Trieste and Genova and the China Communications Construction Co.

Government representatives and officials from the two countries signed 19 other accords ranging from countering tax evasion to encouraging start-ups and boosting citrus fruit exports from Italy to China.

Xi’s visit comes at a time when Washington is losing its fight to persuade allies to lock Huawei Technologies Co. out of planned 5G telecommunications networks. The US is concerned the Italians’ willingness to go along with the Chinese infrastructure project is another sign of its allies softening on Beijing, a US official said.

Underscoring his determination to present a united European front toward China, French President Emmanuel Macron has invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to join him and Xi next week to discuss issues such as trade and climate.

French officials said Merkel and Juncker were invited to bring a “European” element to the visit. "Europe has woken up about China," Macron said on arrival at a summit in Brussels on Thursday. "Since the beginning of my mandate, I’ve called for a defense of European sovereignty.”

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