ROME (REUTERS) - Italy's plan to join China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has upset the United States, which warned that the move could significantly damage Rome's international image.
The Financial Times reported on Wednesday (March 6) that Italy is negotiating a preliminary deal to become a part of China's giant infrastructure plan to boost trade.
"We view BRI as a 'made by China, for China' initiative," the newspaper quoted Mr Garrett Marquis, the White House National Security Council spokesman, as saying.
Italy's Junior Industry Minister Michele Geraci said that if Italy did sign an accord when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the country later this month, it would be non-binding and just "an initial framework".
Mr Geraci said he had not seen any sign the US was annoyed or concerned.
"Our goal does not seem to me to be controversial," he said. "It is about helping companies do business."
However, in a sign there is no government unity on the issue, another junior minister cautioned against any such move, saying more thought had to be given about national security.
"5G and infrastructural access are issues of national security that must be evaluated with great care. At this moment, I do not think we should proceed with the signature," Foreign Ministry undersecretary Guglielmo Picchi wrote on Twitter.
Both Mr Picchi and Mr Geraci represent the coalition, far-right League party.
An Italian diplomatic source told Reuters that Rome was facing "a lot of pressure" from China to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), but added that if an accord was reached, it would be "an empty box".
The BRI, championed by Mr Xi, aims to link China by sea and land with south-east and central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, through an infrastructure network on the lines of the old Silk Road. Aside from boosting trade and investment, Mr Xi aims to advance exchanges in areas such as science, technology and culture.
Italian officials said Mr Xi was due to visit Italy from March 22 to 24, and would spend at least one day in Palermo - the capital of the island of Sicily.
"We are still negotiating the details of the MOU and it might, or might not be signed," Mr Geraci said. "It is an initial framework. It is not a contract, there are no commitments, there are no funds and no obligations."
Italy fell into recession at the end of 2018 for the third time in a decade and the government is eager to find ways to boost the economy and revive the stalled construction sector.
A number of European Union states have signed MOUs with China, including Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Malta, Poland and Portugal. If Italy signs, it would be the first Group of Seven major industrialised nation to do so.
An EU spokesman in Brussels said the EU was cooperating with Beijing on the initiative, but added that this was "on the basis of China fulfilling its declared aim of making it an open platform which adheres to market rules, EU and international requirements and standards".
Past EU optimism over dealing with China has turned to frustration over Beijing's slowness to open up its economy and a surge of Chinese takeovers in critical sectors. There has also been pressure from the US to shun China over espionage fears.