* Italy might get go-ahead to issue “Panda” bonds
* Numerous commercial accords set for Xi visit
* Italy government moves to defend 5G network (Adds Xi comment, Italy protecting its 5G network)
By Stefano Bernabei
ROME, March 20 (Reuters) - Italy is looking to build on its economic and commercial ties with China by becoming the first Group of Seven major industrialised nation to borrow in the Chinese $12-trillion bond market, sources said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to visit Rome this week and is expected to sign a preliminary accord with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, hooking Italy up to his giant Belt and Road infrastructure project.
More than 30 parallel deals are also in the pipeline, according to a source close to the matter.
Amongst these is a possible accord to let Italy’s state lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP) sell “Panda” bonds - debt sold by foreign entities to investors in mainland China - two sources familiar with negotiations told Reuters.
Such a deal would highlight the tentative moves being made by Xi to remove barriers to foreign issuers as he seeks to internationalise China’s renminbi or yuan currency and open up sources of finance for his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
CDP is controlled by the Economy and Finance Ministry with a stake of more than 80 percent.
“Between Friday and Saturday, CDP and Bank of China, along with the Economy Ministry perhaps, could sign a Memorandum of Understanding that, if finalised, would allow CDP to launch a programme of Panda bonds to co-finance Italian companies that invest in China,” one of the sources said.
The scheme would not apply to Chinese companies investing in Italy, sources added.
Writing in Corriere della Sera newspaper on the eve of his visit, Xi said China and Italy were ready to take their ties to a new level and work closer together in international agencies.
On the business front, he said the two nations could develop projects in sectors such as ports, shipping, telecoms and pharmaceuticals and encourage their respective firms to collaborate in third countries.
Although Xi mentioned telecoms, Italy made clear on Wednesday it would protect the sensitive sector from foreign predators amid concerns from Western allies that Rome might sellout sensitive technologies as part of its China accords.
The ruling League party said the government planned to extend its special “golden powers” that safeguard strategic interests to 5G technologies in a bid to ease U.S. worries.
Under the new rules, Italy will require private and public firms to notify the government of any purchase of 5G technology from non-European providers, a League spokeswoman said.
Rome looked happy to welcome deals in many other sectors.
Sources said CDP and Italian gas company Snam were expected to sign a deal with the Chinese fund Silk Road for cooperation on international investments in China and in the about 120 countries that have signed up for the BRI.
Leading Italian banks Unicredit, Intesa Sanpaolo and UBI should also sign accords while Italian energy giant ENI will secure a credit line with a Chinese bank, another three sources said.
Italian supplier of equipment to the metal industry Danieli will be signing a deal to build a steel plant in China that will then be transferred to a former-Soviet Union country, according to a source familiar with the matter.
China’s e-commerce group Suning, top shareholder of Italian soccer team Internazionale Milano, could announce further investment to purchase made-in-Italy goods, another source familiar with the matter said.
Accords were also likely to open up the northern ports of Trieste and Genoa to Chinese goods. (Additional reporting by Stephen Jewkes, Gianluca Semeraro, Andrea Mandala, Elvira Pollina and Giuseppe Fonte; Writing by Giselda Vagnoni; Editing by Crispian Balmer)