China's Xi looks to strengthen Italian ties, evokes ancient trade routes

ROME (Reuters) - Italy and China want to revive the spirit of the ancient Silk Road by deepening their trade and investment ties, Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Friday during a trip to Rome that has raised eyebrows in Washington.

Xi is set to sign a deal on Saturday that will see Italy become the first member of the Group of Seven industrialized nations to join China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure project (BRI), which is inspired by the historic trade routes.

“We want to revitalize the ancient Silk Road in order to better share the fruits of humanity’s progress,” Xi said following talks with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

Speaking through a translator, Xi said the two countries should enhance cooperation in infrastructure, ports, logistics and maritime transport.

Italy’s populist government is eager to boost trade rapidly in an effort to help revitalize the sickly economy, which has slipped into its third recession in a decade.

But just when Rome is looking to upgrade its relations with Beijing, many European allies are growing more skeptical. EU leaders in Brussels on Friday warned that China should be treated as much as a competitor as a partner.

“The period of European naivety is over,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters.

Such caution was not on view in Rome, where Italy offered Xi an extravagant welcome, with a cavalry phalanx escorting his limousine into the courtyard of the presidential palace -- the sort of entry normally reserved for royalty.

Xi will later attend a state dinner in his honor, where Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli will sing for the 170 guests.

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Italian officials had predicted that up to 30 deals worth some 7 billion euros ($7.9 billion) could be signed during Xi’s visit, but they cut that forecast to “around a dozen” on Friday, saying not all the negotiations had been wrapped up.

Amongst the Italian companies likely to sign accords were Eni, gas infrastructure firm Snam and shipbuilder Fincantieri, state-backed power engineering firm Ansaldo Energia and steel firm Danieli.

State lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP) said it had also received the go-ahead to sell debt to investors within China, making Italy the biggest European Union nation to borrow in the Chinese bond market.

Italy’s decision to get closer to Beijing has alarmed Washington, where the White House National Security Council urged Rome not to give “legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project”.

Critics of the BRI say it is designed to bolster China’s political and military influence, bringing little reward to other nations, and warn that it could be used to spread technologies capable of spying on Western interests.

In an effort to allay such fears, Rome moved hastily this week to protect its telecoms sector from foreign predators, and the Italian president stressed on Friday that any deals had to be to advantageous to both countries.

“The Silk Road must be a two-way street and not only trade must travel along it, but also talent, ideas and knowledge,” Mattarella said, with Xi standing alongside him.

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The two men promised to bolster cultural connections, saying they would twin Italian and Chinese UNESCO heritage sites.

Mattarella also stressed the importance of safeguarding human rights but did not go into specific details. The U.S. State Department earlier this month slammed rights violations in China, saying the sort of abuses it had inflicted on its Muslim minorities had not been seen “since the 1930s.”

China denied the accusation as groundless and prejudiced.

Italy’s rapprochement with Beijing has come as U.S. President Donald Trump wages a trade war with China, accusing the world’s second-largest economy of unfair practices.

Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon is in Rome and called on the Italian government to rethink its position.

“I beseech the people of Italy to look at China’s predatory economic model before signing any deals,” he told reporters. “The Chinese have a rapacious appetite for global domination.”

Reporting by Crispian Balmer, Giselda Vagnoni, Stephen Jewkes and Giuseppe Fonte; editing by Philip Pullella, Larry King