China-Maldives Friendship Bridge
© Global Look Press/Xinhua/Xu Fudi
China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, part of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road
Italy's desire to build trade ties with China isn't a move against the US, but an effort to "maximise" its own interests, Italy's former Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told RT, ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's Rome visit.

Italy is expected to sign a non-binding memorandum in support of China's Belt and Road global trade and infrastructure network, dubbed the New Silk Road, during Xi's visit, and has signaled its intention to play a major role in the grand plan, despite warnings about the project from Washington.

The move will make Italy the first G7 country to back the initiative, which aims to link China by sea and land with the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Rome is hoping that its involvement can help revive the Italian economy by providing greater access to the Chinese market.

Frattini told RT that the project is of "very high significance" for Italy and can be "a real bridge" linking Asia and Europe. Acknowledging the US warning to Italy to steer clear of what it called China's "vanity project," Frattini said Italy's involvement was "not a message against the United States, but a message to maximise European interests."

US threats were not surprising, Frattini said, since it is "not a secret" that the Trump administration considers China its biggest competitor. He also said it was likely that other EU countries would want to get involved in the Chinese project because these days, European nations are pursuing more independent policies and are "less available to follow the wishes of their American allies."

Nonetheless, Frattini assured Washington that Italy will remain "loyal allies" with the US and will"never" put its critical infrastructure "in the hands of a foreign state."

Frattini said he hoped that the increasing independence from Washington, seen in some European policies, could extend to the issue of sanctions on Russia, saying it is in Europe's interest to "progressively lift" the sanctions which were imposed "because of the demands and requests" of the Obama administration.

There has, however, been some "heavy discussion" within the Italian government with regard to the Silk Road project and Italy's relationship with China, chief editor of Pandoratv.it Giulietto Chiesa told RT.

There is a "big split inside the Italian elite" with the more pro-American politicians and commenters more wary of such cooperation and the potential US reactions, he said. Chiesa believes there will be a "deepening" of differences between Europe and the US, which is "trying to impose it own ideas about international commerce" and not everyone in Europe agrees.

That thought was echoed by Italian journalist Alessandra Bocchi, who told RT that Italy's decision to ignore US warnings showed a "shift in Italy's foreign policy" and demonstrated that Washington "no longer has the same power than it once had in Europe."

Bocchi said Italy's move could "trigger a domino effect" in terms of more European countries wanting to develop ties with China, adding that it appeared the US is trying to pressure Europe to choose between it and China - and, since the two are major economic rivals in the middle of a trade war, Europe is part of that "battleground."