Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: REUTERS/PEDRO NUNES
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: REUTERS/PEDRO NUNES

Beijing — Chinese President Xi Jinping heads to Europe on Thursday as the continent is divided over his cherished Belt and Road trade infrastructure project and under US pressure to shun telecoms giant Huawei.

Xi will start his trip in Italy before heading to Monaco — the first visit by a Chinese president to the posh principality — and end his five-day journey in France. His visit comes a week after the EU released a 10-point plan outlining a shift to more assertive relations with Beijing, warning that China is a “rival” to the bloc as well as its biggest trading partner.

But Xi is expected to secure a nonbinding agreement for Italy to join the $1-trillion Belt and Road Initiative. China has financed maritime, rail and road projects in Asia, Africa and Europe through the initiative, but critics warn that it mainly benefits Chinese firms while setting up a “debt trap” in financially vulnerable countries.

Italy would be the first Group of Seven nation to join the ambitious venture, raising eyebrows among Western allies. EU members Greece and Poland have also embraced the “new Silk Road”, but others in the bloc fear it could lead to growing Chinese government influence on the continent.

A White House official, Garrett Marquis, last week tweeted that there was “no need” for Italy to endorse “China’s infrastructure vanity project”.

French President Emmanuel Macron said EU countries should have a “co-ordinated approach” to Beijing and urged for co-operation based on the “spirit of equality” and reciprocity.

But Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who will meet Xi, dismissed the concerns, saying there are no risks. “For us, collaborating with China on Belt and Road is a choice of a purely economic or commercial nature, perfectly compatible with our position in the Atlantic alliance and in the EU,” Conte told Corriere della Sera newspaper.

A draft of the nonbinding memorandum of understanding published in Italian media reveals broad undertakings for co-operation in logistics, infrastructure investment, financial and environmental sectors.

Beijing has been eyeing investment in the Italian ports of Trieste and Genoa that offer easy access to Europe’s markets, said Giuliano Noci, a China expert at Milan Polytechnic business school. He said any deal should ensure that the “ports remain Italian”, warning that Rome must avoid the model of the Greek port of Piraeus, which was taken over by Chinese shipping giant Cosco in 2016.

Xu Tiebing, professor of international relations at Communication University of China, said Italy has maintained a supportive attitude towards Beijing despite “some pressure from the US”.

Picking sides

Xi’s trip also comes as the US is urging European allies to avoid using Huawei for next-generation 5G networks, warning it could serve as a “back door” for spying.

Meeting EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi lashed out at “abnormal, immoral” attacks on Huawei.

While the US and Australia have kept Huawei out of their 5G networks, European countries have not closed the door on its services.

Italy’s coalition government is divided, with the head of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement keen to have Huawei testing 5G in some cities while the far-right deputy prime minister has been more cautious, warning against any threat to the country’s security.

In France, where Xi will meet Macron, two telecoms operators are using Huawei equipment for their 4G networks a nd are testing 5G gear with the Chinese firm.

The French government has warned of  the risk of using Huawei equipment, but it has not taken any decisive steps against it so far.

Monaco — the second stop in Xi’s tour — has already signed a deal with Huawei to support the tiny country’s “5G Nation” project, according to a statement by Monaco Telecom.

Xi will hold talks with Prince Albert  during a visit to the independent city-state known for its upmarket casinos and prestigious Grand Prix motor race.

The unusual destination is part of China’s “doctrine of raking wide the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea” for opportunities, said Francois Godement, Asia adviser at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.

Monaco is a tourist attraction and a financial stronghold, he said, adding that China likes to “cultivate bilateral relations even with the tiniest [nations]”.