China's Xi Jinping to visit Italy, France as Rome joins 'Belt and Road'

Chinese President Xi Jinping (above) will pay state visits from March 21 to March 26, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Italy, Monaco and France this week, the foreign ministry said on Monday (March 18), with Rome expected to join his global trade infrastructure programme despite reservations in other European countries.

Mr Xi will pay state visits from Thursday to next Tuesday (March 21 to March 26), foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement, without providing more details about his itinerary.

An Italian official said last week that Rome would sign a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Beijing to officially support Mr Xi's massive US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road.

Italy has been split over whether to sign the MOU to participate in Mr Xi's signature trade and infrastructure programme, and is working to solidify accords with Chinese companies in areas from banking to energy.

Beijing has financed infrastructure, maritime, rail and road projects in Asia, Africa and Europe, but critics warn that it mainly benefits Chinese firms while setting up a "debt trap" in more financially vulnerable countries.

Italy's willingness to consider doing business with China is fueling concerns in the US and European Union about a G-7 country signing up for the BRI and allowing China's interests into sectors like telecoms and ports.

Following Italy's announcement, French President Emmanuel Macron said last week that EU countries should have a "coordinated approach" regarding China.

"It's a good thing that China is participating in the development of many countries, but I believe in the spirit of equality, reciprocity. The spirit of equality means respecting the sovereignty of nations," Mr Macron said.

France, meanwhile, has said it will impose new checks on equipment makers including embattled Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co.

The US has also recently issued warnings about data theft sponsored by the Chinese state.

There has been speculation that Mr Xi and US President Donald Trump would meet this month to sign an agreement to end the trade war between the world's two biggest economies, but that is not likely to happen until April at the earliest, three people familiar with the matter said.

Meanwhile, senior Vatican sources have said Pope Francis is willing to meet Mr Xi and that intermediaries had made overtures to the Vatican, but the Chinese side had not yet formally asked for a meeting. Any encounter would be the first between a Chinese leader and a pope.

Beijing cut diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951 and has remained concerned that an independent Church in China could threaten its authority.

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