ROME — A cavalry escort usually reserved for royals. A tour of the Coliseum and a visit to the ancient Capitoline Hill. A performance by Andrea Bocelli in a presidential palace that once housed popes.
The warm welcome President Xi Jinping of China received in Rome on Friday was that of an exalted ally — or as critics say, a conqueror — as he began a visit that will culminate on Saturday with the signing of Italy’s official agreement to participate in China’s vast Belt and Road infrastructure project.
In doing so, Italy will become the first member of the Group of 7 nations that have long dominated the global economy to take part in the project, a sign of how a rising China is reshaping the world’s economic and geopolitical order.
“The ancient Silk Road was a tool of knowledge among people and to share mutual discoveries,” President Sergio Mattarella of Italy said Friday morning, standing next to Mr. Xi at the Quirinal Palace. “The new one must also be a two-way street.”
Mr. Mattarella also urged the Chinese to help protect the environment and show “respect for the rules of the market,” something that many critics of China have said it flagrantly ignores.
Mr. Xi thanked Italy for its “deep friendship” and spoke about the importance of “revitalizing the ancient Silk Road,” strengthening ties and developing a “series of concrete projects” together. He assured the Italians, who are desperate to open Chinese markets to Italian goods, that he wanted a “commercial exchange that goes both ways and a flow of investments that goes both ways.”
The tightening relationship between China and Italy has worried American officials, who have tried and failed to stop the deal, expressing concern that China’s economic expansion is a precursor to military and political ambitions. When it became clear that Italy would nevertheless sign the deal, the American ambassador in Italy and other officials instead tried to convince Italy not to use 5G wireless networks developed by the Chinese electronics giant Huawei, which Washington warns could be used by Beijing to spy on communications networks.
Leaders of the European Union in Brussels have also raised fears that Italy — saddled by debt, and tempted by promises of hundreds of millions of euros in infrastructure investment — could fall prey to a Chinese divide-and-conquer strategy. And critics of the Italian government have called the deal yet another example of its dangerous naïveté and incompetence.
Even as Mr. Xi arrived in Italy on Thursday night, Europe’s leaders, including Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, met in Brussels to strengthen transparency and reciprocity rules aimed directly at China.
European leaders discussed their commitment to increased “screening” of foreign, and especially Chinese, investments. (Italy abstained from a recent vote to bolster that screening.) They discussed new measures to address the advantages that Chinese state-backed companies have in competing with private European firms and potential rules that would introduce more reciprocity to trade with China, essentially closing European markets to companies from countries that prevent European investment in their markets.
“Since the beginning of my mandate I’ve been calling for a real awareness and for the defense of European sovereignty,” President Emmanuel Macron told reporters on Thursday, adding of the bloc’s more aggressive position toward China, “I welcome this European awakening.”
After visiting Italy, Mr. Xi will visit France on Tuesday, where he will meet Mr. Macron. But in a surprise announcement on Friday, France revealed that Mr. Macron would be joined by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president. Italy’s leaders were left out.
Italian leaders have argued that there is nothing to be concerned about. Italy, they say, will avoid China’s debt traps, and its laws prevent foreigners from taking control of its ports, as China has done in Piraeus, Greece.
But critics of the government do not find these guarantees reassuring.
A full page cartoon on the front page of Thursday’s Il Foglio, a newspaper critical of the government, showed Mr. Conte, the prime minister, leading an enormous, fire-breathing Chinese dragon with a short leash and the nametag “Ping” — an allusion to a gaffe by Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the Five Star Movement and the economic development minister. Mr. Di Maio, who flew multiple times to China to strike the deal, once mistakenly called Mr. Xi “President Ping.”
In the cartoon, Mr. Conte says, “Take it easy guys, I can manage him. He practically eats from my hand.”
Mr. Conte, who will meet with Mr. Xi tomorrow, has defended the deal, saying it was a way to inject Italian goods into a huge Asian market.
“We want to first and foremost rebalance our trade, which is not favorable to us now. Our exports to China are far lower than other European countries’,” Mr. Conte told Italy’s Parliament before the visit. “We will have new airports, new trade corridors, and it will certainly influence our economic growth. We don’t want to lose any opportunity.”
China also doesn’t want to lose the opportunity to make use of Italy’s ports, through which it could transport goods from the East or resources from its vast investments in Africa. The port of Trieste, on Italy’s northern Adriatic border, for example, has attracted China with its deep harbors, advantageous customs rules and connection to a railroad network that leads directly into Central Europe.
“China is interested in ports,” said Michele Geraci, Italy’s under secretary in the economic development ministry and the government’s key negotiator on the agreement. “And we are interested in China helping us grow the size of that port.”
Mr. Geraci, who lived in China for a decade, also emphasized the importance of Mr. Xi’s visit on Friday to the Italian official’s hometown, Palermo, Sicily. It is another key port, especially for goods coming from Africa, he said. But he has also suggested the visit could be a boon for tourism, as the mere presence of Mr. Xi indicates to hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens that Italy is worth the trip.
“It’s a positive thing,” said former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who has deep experience with China and who said Germany, France and other European nations already conducted much more business with China. “It’s a competition between the countries of Europe.”
But by entering the Chinese playing field, Italy is potentially drifting away from the United States. The Trump administration, according to Italian officials, did not argue against the deal until it was in very late stages. American critics of China’s government said the failure to prioritize the China deal amounted to diplomatic malpractice.
On Friday morning, Mr. Xi and his delegation met with their Italian counterparts at the Quirinal Palace. Mr. Mattarella’s most pointed public remark was a passing reference to “the European-Chinese dialogue on human rights,” a nod to Europe’s criticism of China’s crackdown on religious and ethnic minorities, including millions of ethnic Uighur Muslims.
Mr. Xi showed no reaction to the remark. “Looking at the world, we are facing an epochal change, and China and Italy are two important forces in the world to safeguard peace and promote development,” Mr. Xi said at the palace. “China wants to work with Italy,” he said, calling on both countries to “intensify their political trust.”