Italy sends mixed signals on China port investment deal

ROME (AP) — Italy’s coalition government appears undecided over whether it will sign an agreement with China endorsing its “Belt and Road” infrastructure investment drive, amid pressure from the U.S. to stand down.

Guglielmo Picchi, undersecretary of state, said further reflection was needed before signing the proposed agreement. “As of today, I don’t think we should proceed with the signing,” he tweeted Wednesday.

Another undersecretary in the economic development ministry, Michele Geraci, told the Financial Times and the New York Times that while the negotiations aren’t over, it was possible that the deal could be signed when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Italy later this month.

China’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road” initiative aims to expand commerce by building ports, railways and other infrastructure across 65 countries from the South Pacific through Asia to Europe and Africa. Projects under the initiative have faced complaints that they leave host countries with too much debt, and with too little work going to local companies.

U.S.-China relations are at the lowest level since the Cold War, in part over U.S. opposition to the initiative which Washington has argued drowns its partners in debt and infringes on their sovereignty.

On Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang criticized comments by the White House National Security Council spokesman, Garrett Marquis, about Italy’s apparent interest in the project. Marquis told the Financial Times the U.S. believed the initiative benefits China, not Italy.

“The U.S. statement is very absurd,” Lu said. “As a large economy and a big country, Italy is very clear about its own interests and can independently make its own policies and judgments.”