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Italy's foreign minister defends MOU agreements with China

FILE PHOTO: Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero on Thursday defended the commercial accords Italy is poised to sign with China as part of its “Belt and Road” initiative and said they had the backing of President Sergio Mattarella.

“My understanding is that a balance has been found” between the interests of promoting trade and defending national security, Moavero said in answer to questions from a parliamentary panel.

The United States, which fears China’s growing international clout and penetration into strategic areas such as telecommunications, has raised concerns about allies’ participation in the Belt and Road scheme. The European Union is meanwhile wary of Chinese takeovers in critical sectors.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said he may sign a series of Memorandums of Understanding on Belt and Road infrastructure investments when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Rome and Palermo later this month.

That would make Italy the first Group of Seven major industrialized nation to sign up for the initiative, which aims to create an infrastructure network like the old Silk Road linking China with Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

A number of smaller European Union states have already signed MOUs with China.

“We have to be concrete and pragmatic, Italy is a major manufacturing and exporting country for whom it’s very important to have access to such a large market as China,” Moavero said.

The minister, an academic who is not a member of either of the ruling parties -- the right-wing League and the populist 5-Star Movement -- stressed that the MOUs were framework agreements and not binding international treaties.

He added that government is considering strengthening its so-called “golden powers,” which are tools that allow the state to safeguard strategic assets from foreign ownership.

Reporting By Giselda Vagnoni, writing by Gavin Jones, Editing by Catherine Evans