ROME (AP) – Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with China on Saturday in support of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to weave a network of ports, bridges and power plants linking China with Africa, Europe and beyond.
Premier Giuseppe Conte and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands during a ceremony in Rome after 29 separate sections of the memorandum were signed by members of both governments.
With the memorandum, Italy becomes the first member of the Group of Seven major economies, which includes the United States, to join Belt and Road, following Portugal’s embrace of the initiative in December.
Italy’s move appears to be driven partly by hopes that Chinese investment in Italy’s ports might help revive the country’s traditional role as a key link in trade between the East and West.
The signing ceremony took place at Villa Madama, a Renaissance villa designed by Raphael, where Xi was greeted with full honors on the second day of a two-day visit to Italy. He travels later Saturday to Sicily.
Italy’s involvement gives China a crucial inroad into Western Europe and a symbolic boost in its economic tug-of-war with Washington, where President Donald Trump seeks to challenge China over trade and other issues.
The European Union is also worried about unfair competition from Chinese companies, which are controlled by the Chinese government and benefit from the state’s financial backing. EU leaders in Brussels are preparing a strategy to counter the growing influence of China, which they describe as a “systemic rival.”
The Belt and Road project has so far seen investments totaling more than a trillion dollars since its launch more than five years ago, and China says some 150 countries have signed agreements related to the project.
Beijing has marketed the initiative as a way to give some of the world’s neediest countries a leg up, helping them gain access to more trade and investment. But it also helps Chinese companies tap new markets for their products while helping Beijing amass greater global influence.
Some governments including the U.S., Japan and India worry that Beijing is trying to build a China-centered sphere of influence that would undermine their own sway, pulling developing nations into so-called “debt traps,” that would give China ever-more control over their territories and economies.
China’s official position is that Belt and Road is solely an economic initiative with no political motives. Xi said in a speech late last year that even as China moves closer to the center of the world stage, it will never seek hegemony.