ROME (AFP) -- China's foreign minister on Tuesday kicked off a tour of a Europe still reeling from coronavirus, as he seeks to shore up economic and diplomatic relations in light of tensions with the US.
Donald Trump's administration has stepped up anti-China rhetoric in the run-up to the US presidential election on November 3, despite ongoing trade talks.
On his first European stop in Rome, Wang Yi shied away from naming Washington explicitly, but lamented "provocation and damage from external forces" hitting the EU -- a second favourite punching-bag of Trump's.
"A united, stable and prosperous Europe is important for the whole of the world," Wang added.
Italy was the first G7 country to sign on to China's ambitious "Belt and Road" trade and infrastructure investment plan, and Wang on Tuesday inked two new trade deals with Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.
Rome was criticised for last year breaking ranks with other European countries over the investment scheme.
Allies have worried that China's "Silk Road" will destabilise smaller countries by overloading them with debt, boost China's power, and allow key
technologies and trade secrets to slip into Beijing's hands.
But Italian leaders now hope boosted export opportunities for the country's main industries -- from agricultural products to machinery -- can help haul it out of a devastating economic crisis brought about by an over two-month lockdown.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Rome in March 2019, signing billions of euros in trade deals.
Di Maio said the latest agreements covered natural gas from Snam, Europe's biggest pipelines operator, and the export of "Made in Italy" food products to China, as well as "important partnerships in the energy and transport sector".
But there are clear pitfalls for Wang's stated aim to "consolidate relations" between China and Europe as the top diplomat travels on to the Netherlands, France, Germany and Norway.
Just as the trade deals were being signed, visiting Hong Kong activist Nathan Law urged Italy to condemn China for human rights abuses.
Law met with an Italian foreign affairs delegation and told reporters Di Maio should "address Hong Kong's problems and the human rights violations by China".
Italy should "severely condemn" Beijing's human rights record, added Law, who recently fled Hong Kong to London after Beijing imposed a controversial security law on the territory in June.
Law called for a "strong alliance" against Beijing, including "sanctioning"
Chinese officials responsible for human rights violations against China's Uighur population in the northwestern Xinjiang province, and in Hong Kong.
Wang said China had passed its law "to fill the gaps that had existed in Hong Kong for years."
"It is a law to combat the violent acts found everywhere and to hinder certain actions of pro-independence Hong Kong people," Wang said.
Di Maio said he had told his Chinese counterpart that Hong Kong's "stability and prosperity are essential."
"It is essential to preserve the high autonomy of the city and the protection of the fundamental rights of its inhabitants," he added.
Even as Wang looked to bolster ties with Europe, China is in the midst of trade talks with an increasingly prickly US.
The trans-Pacific atmosphere is far frostier since an initial trade agreement was signed in January.
Tensions have mounted over Trump's charge Chinese leaders allowed the coronavirus to run out of control after it emerged in Wuhan, and the president again dubbed it the "China virus" in a video played during the Republican convention Monday.
The two superpowers are also at odds over technology and China's human rights record. (AFP)