China’s president lands in Rome on Thursday, where he is expected to sign a landmark infrastructure deal that has raised eyebrows and suspicions among Italy’s Western allies.
Xi Jinping’s project is a New Silk Road which, just like the ancient trade route, aims to link China to Europe.
The upside for Italy is a potential flood of investment and greater access to Chinese markets and raw materials.
But amid China’s growing influence and questions over its intentions, Italy’s Western allies in the European Union and United States have concerns.
By land and by sea
The New Silk Road has another name – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – and it involves a wave of Chinese funding for major infrastructure projects around the world, in a bid to speed Chinese goods to markets further afield.
It has already funded trains, roads, and ports, with Chinese construction firms given lucrative contracts to connect ports and cities – funded by loans from Chinese banks.
The levels of debt owed by African nations to China have raised concerns in the West – but roads and railways have been built that would not exist otherwise:
In Uganda, Chinese millions built a 50km (30 mile) road to the international airport
In Tanzania, a small coastal town may become the continent’s largest port
In Europe too, Chinese firms managed to buy 51% of the port authority in Piraeus port near Athens in 2016, after years of economic crisis in Greece
Italy, however, will be the first top-tier global power – a member of the G7 – to take the money offered by China.
It is one of the world’s top 10 largest economies – yet Rome finds itself in a curious situation.