Italy’s agreement last week to sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative has unnerved European and U.S. leaders who hoped for a united front against Beijing’s geo-economic ambitions.

“Endorsing BRI lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment and will bring no benefits to the Italian people,” the White House’s National Security Council warned via Twitter.

While Chinese investment in Europe is nothing new, Belt and Road is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature program. Winning over a member of the Group of Seven industrialised nations and a major European country boosts its credibility.

But the deal’s importance for China and Xi goes beyond establishing a foothold in Europe for Belt and Road.

Winning over Italy specifically was essential. Not even Germany would have been a more desirable European partner. For centuries, Italy was the European centre of silk production and trade with the east. Xi cannot credibly claim to re-establish the Silk Roads without their historic terminus.

Seeing China as a rising rival power, western analysts too often ignore the cultural symbolism of the Belt and Road project for President Xi’s domestic audience. Belt and road isn’t just a power move or even a pragmatic economic investment. It’s an assertion of Chinese identity.

Evoking the Silk Roads offers contemporary Chinese a national story of technological leadership, peaceful trade and international respect all, not coincidentally, compatible with autocratic rule. It reminds the Chinese people and the world that the nation’s story is an old one, filled with great achievements. Unlike some stories a Chinese leader might endorse, however, it emphasises openness to influences from elsewhere.

A typical caption in the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou exemplifies this message: “As trade along the Silk Road developed, textile patterns from the West began to influence silk production in China.

In some cases, Chinese silk bore patterns copied directly from Western models; in other cases, Chinese silk incorporated Western textile motifs.” The caption is straightforward history, reflecting the patterns in exhibited fabrics. But there’s an unmistakable political undercurrent: Chinese greatness comes not from isolation but from engagement.

And, make no mistake, Belt and Road is all about Chinese greatness. Consider how Xi framed the deal for Italian audiences in an op-ed in Corriere Della Sera:

China and Italy are respectively the representatives of eastern and western civilisation and have written some of the most important and significant chapters in the history of human civilisation…. The contacts between these two great civilisations, Chinese and Italian, are deeply rooted in history.

Ignoring some pesky historical details, he recalled the Silk Road links between ancient Rome and the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) and, of course, invoked Marco Polo. Italy and China have 2,000 years of friendship, he declared, which constitutes a “rich historical heritage.” While flattering the Italians for their own heritage, Xi hinted that his bid to make China great again might do the same for its partners.

It’s a tricky message. Today, in the textile towns of northern Italy, “made in Italy” often means made by Chinese workers in Chinese-owned mills. Edoardo Nesi’s prize-winning 2010 memoir, “Story of My People,” which recounts the decline of his family’s Prato mill, depicts the fall of the Italian textile industry as the fault of shortsighted fashion houses, globalist economists, uncaring politicians and cutthroat Chinese. It’s Trumpism with literary flair.

When Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and head of the anti-migrant League party, warns of “colonisation” by foreign companies, his audience doesn’t picture the French. (Salvini conspicuously left Rome to campaign in the south during President Xi’s visit.)

In this context, the deal represents a coup for President Xi. Amid rising nationalism, Italy’s populist government is endorsing China as the benign trading partner that it imagines itself to be.