At a time when much of the Western world is questioning the nature of its engagement with China, one of its elder statesmen is convinced that Donald Trump is on the wrong track.
Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister and ex-president of the European Commission, says that based on more than 30 years' experience of dealing with China, the US President's strategy to delay the country's rise by putting obstacles like the current trade war in its path is doomed to fail.
During a one-hour exclusive interview at his home in Bologna he told the South China Morning Post: "Even if the intention is to stop China, it's too late. It's too late. It's too late. The United States is No 1 by far, but China's growth is irreversible."
His early encounters with the country and its leaders gave him an insight into the people behind the often dour Communist facade and have provided some valuable clues to their thinking and interests.
Around the turn of the last century, before meeting Chinese president Jiang Zemin, Prodi's staff in Brussels had prepared a thick dossier for him to talk through with his guest.
But the Chinese leader was interested in one particular area - one that hinted at the country's long-term plans to be a major player on the world stage.
Jiang was most concerned about plans to bring in the euro, which came into circulation in 2002. As soon as the two men sat down, Jiang said to him: "European currencies will disappear? In the long run, we shall buy as many euros as dollars because if there is another currency side-by-side with the dollar, there will also be room for the renminbi (also known as the yuan)."
But these grand ambitions extended far beyond the rather dry world of foreign exchange.
Years before that, in the early years of the reform and opening up process initiated by Deng Xiaoping, Prodi learnt that even the successors to Chairman Mao were not immune to a little star power.
In 1987, he was visiting as head of Italy's state-run Institute for Industrial Reconstruction, which was finalising a deal with China's state-owned Citic group to build electric power plants.
"The president of Citic told me, 'Look, we have signed it, but I have a very delicate problem I want to talk to you directly.' Then we went into another room."
The message, it turned out, had come from Deng himself and concerned none other than Diego Maradona, the Argentinian soccer superstar of his day, who at the time was playing for the Italian club Napoli.
The Citic executive told him: "Deng Xiaoping, he has a desire to see Maradona playing in China.
"Deng told me that if Maradona came to China, he would play in Beijing Stadium and 600 million people would watch the game on television."
But Maradona was less impressed by the proposal, attaching the most capitalistic of conditions to the offer - one that the Communists felt unable to match.
"Maradona said: 'I shall not come if you don't pay me 300 million lira (roughly equivalent to US$230,000 at the time) because it is not in my contract to take me out of Italy'."
He also says that his experience of the Soviet Union at the time had convinced him that "China was different" to the other major Communist power of the day.
In 1984 his company had been commissioned to build a pipeline in the Russian city of Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd) and two years later was asked to work on a project in the Chinese port of Tianjin. But the Chinese workers proved to be much quicker learners and more efficient than their Soviet counterparts, so much so that by the time both projects had been finished "our Chinese young technicians were used to finish the Russian project".
For now, Europe needs to deal with another soccer-loving Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, whose recent move to draw the current Italian government into his Belt and Road Initiative upset some other European countries.
Earlier this year, the European Commission for the first time referred to China as a "systemic rival" in a strategic policy paper, although it also identified areas on which the two sides could collaborate.
But Prodi's own view is that the best strategy is to engage China as closely as possible in order to create the maximum room for common ground, which in the long run could pave the way for what he repeatedly calls "political convergence".
The former professor's own character - mixing a lively Italianness with intellectual sharpness - may help explain why he was able to build cordial relationships with a succession of Chinese leaders throughout his years at the top of European politics.
Prodi, who turns 80 next month, has taken up a number of non-governmental positions that give him a chance to visit China regularly, including co-chairman of a newly founded Turin-based group helping exchanges between Chinese and Italian philanthropists.
European politicians used to argue that engaging with China would help to make it a more democratic country.
But since it proved itself capable of exponentially expanding its economy while retaining strict political, social and ideological control over its citizens that argument has fallen from favour.
"Step by step I tried to understand. Of course I was also hoping for the convergence of political systems," he said. "But this did not happen as soon as I thought, even after (China's accession to) the World Trade Organisation (in 2001)."
His belief now is that "with such a dynamic country you have to find mediation".
He adds: "On the Chinese side, you must have symmetry in this behaviour. The advantage of the convergence must be shared."
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