Italy has officially informed China that it is leaving the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), dismissing fears the decision could sour relations and damage the Italian economy, government sources said on Wednesday.

Italy in 2019 became the first and so far only major Western nation to join the trade and investment programme, ignoring warnings from the United States that it might allow China to take control of sensitive technologies and vital infrastructure.

However, when Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni took office last year, she said she wanted to withdraw from the deal, which was championed by President Xi Jinping, saying it had brought no significant gains to Italy.

The 2019 accord expires in March 2024 and an Italian government source said Rome had sent Beijing a letter "in recent days" informing China that it would not be renewing the pact.

China's foreign ministry said on Thursday that the Belt and Road has "enormous appeal and global influence", without singling out Italy for criticism.

"China firmly opposes smearing that damages Belt and Road cooperation, and is opposed to divisions created by camp confrontation," foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters at a routine briefing.

A second Italian government source, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Italy intended to maintain "excellent relations with China" even it was no longer part of the pact.

"Other G7 nations have closer relations with China than we do, despite the fact they were never in (the BRI)," he added.

Italy will assume the presidency of the G7 in 2024.

More than 100 countries have signed agreements with China to cooperate on BRI infrastructure and building projects since it was launched in 2013. The then Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hoped for a trade bonanza when he signed up in 2019, but Chinese firms were the main beneficiaries according to trade data.

Italian exports to China totalled 16.4 billion euros ($17.7 billion) last year from 13 billion euros in 2019. By contrast, Chinese exports to Italy rose to 57.5 billion from 31.7 billion over the same period, Italian data showed.

Italy's main euro zone trading partners France and Germany exported significantly more to China last year, despite not being part of the BRI, which is modelled on the old Silk Road that linked China to the West.

Looking to maintain strategic ties, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani visited Beijing in September and President Sergio Mattarella is due to visit China next year.

Meloni herself has said she wants to go to Beijing, but no date has been fixed.

Successive governments in Rome signalled their doubts about the pact by vetoing some proposed takeovers or limiting the sway of Chinese companies over their Italian counterparts.

In June, Meloni's cabinet curbed the influence of Chinese shareholder Sinochem on Italian tyremaker Pirelli, using "golden power" rules designed to protect strategic assets.

Meloni, who heads a conservative coalition, has been keen to burnish her credentials as a committed pro-NATO leader and a government source said that she had assured U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this year that Italy would leave the BRI.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, Crispian Balmer and Giuseppe Fonte; Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom and Laurie Chen in Beijing; writing by Giulia Segreti and Crispian Balmer Editing by Keith Weir, Toby Chopra and Barbara Lewis)