Italy gave Chinese President Xi Jinping a lavish welcome with an escort of guards on horseback usually reserved for visiting monarchs, shrugging off concerns of European leaders at the Asian power making inroads in the continent.

President Xi, First Lady Peng & President Sergio, First Daughter Laura
Photo: (March 22, 2019) Chinese President Xi Jinping, second from left, his wife Peng Liyuan, left, pose for a group photo with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and his daughter Laura Mattarella, right, at the Quirinale Presidential Palace, in Rome – Italy.

President Xi met President Sergio Mattarella and business leaders on Friday before a ceremony the following day at which the Chinese leader will sign a memorandum of understanding recruiting Italy for his trans-continental Belt & Road infrastructure project. That accord has triggered criticism from U.S. and European Union allies that Italy is jeopardising its sovereignty.

“China & Italy are partners on a strategic level, they have mutual respect & trust for each other”

President Xi said in a speech at the Quirinale Presidential Palace. He added that trade links can boost global prosperity.

About a dozen Italian companies will sign separate agreements with Chinese firms on Saturday, according to people familiar with the matter. They include engineering company Ansaldo Energia SpA, which will announce commissions from Shanghai Electric worth up to 200 million euros ($226 million), the people said.

Gas pipeline operator Snam SpA is expected to announce an agreement with the Silk Road Fund, they said. Spokespersons for Ansaldo and Snam declined to comment.

“Xi in Rome: The Escort Fit for Kings”

Headlined newspaper Corriere Della Sera, before he was greeted at the Presidential Quirinale Palace by Guards on Horseback an honour normally the privilege of Monarchs, and last bestowed on then-Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. President Xi will also attend a Gala Dinner at the Quirinale this evening, with a Concert by Singer Andrea Bocelli.

Rome’s welcome for President Xi, spearheaded by Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, contrasts with the stand of EU leaders. The European Commission, the EU’s Executive Arm, has called the Beijing Government “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”

Amid worries that Italy is opening up a breach in a united EU stand toward China, French President Emmanuel Macron, who will be hosting Xi in Paris next week, has pointedly decided to invite German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to join them to discuss issues such as trade and climate. French officials said Merkel and Juncker were invited to bring a “European” element to the visit.

At an EU summit underway in Brussels, leaders are striving to bring China into the rules based international order. The EU wants Beijing to commit to completing a trade accord removing barriers to the Chinese market for European companies.

Xi has said he wants to offer Italy a “global strategic partnership” stretching from building the new Silk Road together to boosting ties in sensitive sectors including telecoms and ports. Italy will be the first Group of Seven countries to sign a Belt and Road memorandum, fuelling U.S. concerns about an open door for China into strategic sectors.