The decision comes as most of western Europe is trying to rebalance ties with China. But while Brussels has left its de-risking strategy deliberately vague – partly to offer EU members diplomatic cover when disentangling themselves from parts of the Chinese supply chain – no such ambiguity is available to Meloni.

“The issue for Italy right now is how to move out of the [belt and road], which is a political and not an economic tool, while maintaining or maybe strengthening the economic links with China. That is the challenge Meloni faces,” said Lorenzo Codogno, chief economist at the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance from 2006 to 2015.

US President Joe Biden meets Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the White House in Washington in late July. Photo: EPA-EFE

US President Joe Biden meets Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the White House in Washington in late July. Photo: EPA-EFE

In effect, Italy faces being punished twice for joining the initiative, and without harvesting any of the economic rewards it might have hoped for.

“When we signed the memorandum, we didn’t get any significant economic advantage. And now, since the overall geopolitical context is forcing us to go out, we again lose. We first lost reputationally as far as Western countries were concerned. Now, we lose reputation in the eyes of China,” said Giuliano Noci, vice-rector at the Politecnico di Milano university and a former adviser to the Italian government on infrastructure matters.

Noci said that signing up to the belt and road programme without any side deals that would have, for example, granted Italian goods better access to the Chinese market was “a mistake”. “Why can German products enter the market and ours not?” he asked.

Politically, today it would be unthinkable, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine Lorenzo Codogno, former government economist

This sort of logic was rife at the time. In 2019, Luigi Di Miao, then economy minister, said the reason for joining was to rebalance the trade deficit.

“Our goal with these accords is to start to rebalance an imbalance for which there is a lot of ‘made in China’ coming to Italy and too little ‘made in Italy’ that goes to China,” Di Maio said, adding that he expected “a substantial and gradual increase of exports and we hope that in the next years we can balance out the trade imbalances”.

The country suffered three recessions in a decade and was looking enviously at France and Germany, both of which enjoyed much more profitable relations with Beijing.

“At the time, many Italians felt abandoned by Europe, while its populist government was sceptical of the European Union and more than willing to turn to China to fulfil its investment needs,” wrote David Sacks, a fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent blog post.

The data shows an increase in overall trade, but the deficit was not rebalanced, nor did investment flow.

From 2018, the year before former prime minister Giuseppe Conte on-boarded Italy, to 2022, Chinese investments in Italy dropped by 81 per cent, according to statistics from Rhodium Group, a research house.

Calculations based on Chinese customs data show that while in the first half of this year, Italy’s exports to China were 31.7 per cent higher than the equivalent period in 2018, imports from China surged 40.24 per cent, actually expanding the trade deficit by 55 per cent.

Observers caution crediting a memorandum that was light on specifics with a two-way surge in trade. Others bemoan the continued focus on trade balances as a metric of economic well-being.

“You don’t get anything by signing up to the [belt and road] – it’s a gesture of goodwill that may or may not make Beijing more likely to reward you. It’s a necessary step in the right direction if you’re looking to get closer to China and find funding for infrastructure projects, but it’s not anything like a ‘deal’ or ‘treaty,’” said Jacob Mardell, an analyst of EU-China relations based in Berlin.

For China, losing Italy – the belt and road’s richest Western member and a key node on the original Silk Road – will be a symbolic blow, even if not unexpected.

Coinciding with his state visit four years ago, Xi wrote that the agreement would “cultivate the soil of bilateral relations and ensure that it can come to a new and richer flowering”.

But even then, a new geopolitical reality was setting in. Eleven days before the agreement was signed, the EU branded China a “systemic rival” in a now infamous paper that established its triptych policy towards the world’s second-largest economy.

The coronavirus pandemic was just around the corner. Add to this Russia’s war on Ukraine, and Europe’s relationship with China has been in a downwards spiral since Conte signed on the dotted line.

“This could not happen today,” Codogno said. “Politically, today it would be unthinkable, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

For a decade, China’s approach to expanding the belt and road was to target “pivot” or “lighthouse” countries, that would set a positive example to their neighbours, said Moritz Rudolf, an expert in the initiative at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Centre.

“But with Europe that just doesn’t work any more. With the geopolitical situation, this just wouldn’t happen today. We are in a time of reorientation with China. Economic relations are now viewed in terms of dependencies rather than opportunities,” Rudolf said.