Italian Premier Romano Prodi on Monday said his country was leaning toward supporting the end of a 17-year-old European Union ban on arms sales to China, as he signed trade agreements and pledged stronger ties with Beijing.

Italy "leans to lifting the embargo of arms sales to China," Prodi said after meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. "We should resolve this issue as quickly as possible because it can't wait."

The embargo, imposed after China's 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, has become a political sticking point in China's generally robust relations with the European Union.

For Beijing, the embargo has come to represent a measure of the EU's trustworthiness as a partner and has lobbied intensively for its lifting. Beijing's push has divided the 25-member EU. Though France supports a repeal, Britain and other northern European countries have disagreed, citing Beijing's human rights abuses and the need for an EU code of conduct governing arms sales by members of the 25-nation bloc.

Prodi's six-day visit was aimed at bolstering business and political relations frequently roiled by his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian prime minister brought along a large delegation of politicians, entrepreneurs and bankers, underscoring his government's interest in China.

During his meeting with Wen, Prodi said China held a "prominent place" in his foreign policy.

"We must continue strengthening our relations," he said at a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's legislature.

Wen praised him for choosing China as his first stop outside of Europe since being elected premier in April.

"You are a farsighted European political leader," Wen said. "You believe that the gate of Italy should open to the East, to China."

The two sides signed 15 agreements on trade, agriculture, medical care and cultural preservation. No details were immediately available.

At a press conference with Prodi after the signings, Wen also said China will increase its peacekeeping force in Lebanon to 1,000 and double its already pledged humanitarian aid to the Middle Eastern country, to 40 million yuan (US$5 million, euro4 million).

"China is very concerned about the situation in Lebanon and hopes it can be fundamentally resolved," Wen said. Some 182 Chinese military peacekeepers were sent to Lebanon in February and April, its first peacekeeping deployment to the Middle East.

"This shows that China is assuming more and more international responsibility," Prodi said. "With China's assistance, peace can come sooner to Lebanon."

Prodi hopes his visit will represent a shift in policy from Berlusconi, who often blamed Chinese imports for Italy's weak economy. He also enraged Beijing in March with a comment that Chinese communists boiled babies for fertilizer.

In recent years, traditional sectors of the Italian economy, such as textiles and shoemaking, have been badly hit by competition from China and other Asian economies. Italy and some of its European partners accuse the Asian countries of subsidizing cheap exports to Europe, and want the EU to build a wall of tariffs.

Chinese imports to Italy grew 17.1 percent in July from a year earlier, according to data from Italy's national statistics office, Istat. Italy posted a deficit with China of US$1.36 billion (euro1.07 billion) in July.

According to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Trade, about 1,420 Italian companies are operating in China, including carmaker Fiat and its auto component business Magneti Marelli, appliance maker De Longhi and scooter maker Piaggio.