March 20, 2019 / 5:44 AM / 4 months ago

As Xi heads to Italy, China takes Belt and Road controversy in its stride

BEIJING (Reuters) - Misunderstandings over China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are “hard to avoid”, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Wednesday ahead of a trip to Europe by President Xi Jinping during which Italy is set to join the multi-billion dollar trade scheme.

FILE PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a briefing on the final day of the Belt and Road Forum, at the Yanqi Lake International Conference Centre, north of Beijing, China May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Nicolas Asfouri/File Photo

Italy has angered its EU partners by planning to sign infrastructure deals with China, pushing itself as a big backer of the initiative at the heart of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy that is Xi’s signature diplomatic and trade push.

“I think anything new will have a development process,” Vice Foreign Minister Wang Chao told a news briefing when asked about recent controversy in Italy over the accord to be signed this month.

“It is hard to avoid misunderstandings occurring during the process of advancing the construction of the Belt and Road. Of course, the facts are the best proof,” Wang said.

More than 150 countries, regions and international groups have already signed BRI cooperation pacts bringing some benefits to all, he added.

Italy, which is expected to send a high-level delegation to the second Belt and Road summit in Beijing in late April, will be the first stop on Xi’s tour from March 21 to 26 that will also take in France and the tiny principality of Monaco.

With ports that offer easy gateways into Europe’s richest markets, Italy is a promising and prestigious prize for China.

Asked about China’s possible investment in a port in Italy, Wang said investment decisions by its companies would be based on market conditions.

Xi will hold talks with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome, and visit the Sicilian capital of Palermo, Wang said.

The two sides will sign commercial pacts on infrastructure, machinery and finance, he added.

Italy’s drive to be the first Group of Seven industrialised nation to join the ambitious venture has upset Washington and alarmed Brussels, raising fears of a sellout of sensitive technology and the handover of critical infrastructure.

On Tuesday, Conte said the commercial and economic deals he will seal with China have no implications for Italy’s geo-political position, in a bid to reassure the European Union and the United States.

In France, Xi and French President Emmanuel Macron will witness the signing of cooperation agreements on energy, transportation, agriculture, finance, culture and science and technology, Wang said.

Reporting by Tom Daly and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Liangping Gao; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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