, MALE, September15- China’s President Xi Jinping said he hoped the Maldives would help build a “21st century maritime silk road” as he began a South Asian tour in the strategically located Indian Ocean island chain on Monday.
Xi said he was eager to boost relations with the Maldives, which is best known for its tourist industry but also straddles major international shipping routes.
“Maldives was an important stop of the ancient maritime silk road,” Xi wrote in an article published in the local Sun Online news portal late Sunday.
“China welcomes Maldives to get actively involved in building the 21st century maritime silk road by leveraging its own strength.”
The “maritime silk road” — touted by Xi during a visit to Indonesia last year — is intended to revive a trade route running from China through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to Europe.
Xi will also visit close ally Sri Lanka as well as India this week on a tour set to focus on China’s growing economic influence in the region.
He is due to hold talks with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen after an official welcome ceremony at the Republic Square in the capital island of Male on Monday.
It is the first visit by a leader from Beijing since the former British protectorate gained independence in 1965, but will be the second meeting between the two leaders in a matter of weeks, following their talks last month in the Chinese city of Nanjing.
“The focus will be on building what they discussed last month,” a source close to Yameen’s government told AFP. “The thrust of the talks will be on trade and aid rather than security.”
The source said the Maldives was keen to avoid upsetting India by bringing up sensitive security issues as New Delhi considers the islands to be within its sphere of influence.
India has regarded China’s growing influence among its neighbours with concern, leading new Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prioritise regional relationships that critics say the previous government neglected.
Yameen is keen on securing China’s funding for an ambitious project to build a road bridge between central Male island and nearby Hululle island, where the international airport is located.
“Two development projects in the Maldives that are funded by the Chinese government and implemented by Chinese corporations will also be launched jointly by the two presidents,” Yameen’s office said without giving further details.
– Growing militancy –
Chinese have become the largest single group of holidaymakers to visit the Maldives, a nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered some 850 kilometres (530 miles) across the equator.
The Maldives received just over one million tourists last year and more than 30 per cent of them were Chinese. Tourism accounts for more than a quarter of the $2.3 billion economy.
“Known as ‘a string of pearls that God left in the human world’ and with its simple and warm-hearted people and picturesque scenery, Maldives is a magnet attracting tourists from around the world,” said Xi, adding he was eager to experience the islands for himself.
But as well as being renowned for sandy beaches and turquoise waters, there is also some alarm that the Maldives has become a recruiting ground for jihadists.
The one-square mile capital island has seen a pro-jihadist demonstration earlier this month pressing for sharia law.
At least four nationals are said to have been killed while fighting in Syria this year.
Former president Mohamed Nasheed told Britain’s Independent on Sunday paper at the weekend that up to 200 Maldivians were fighting for Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. The entire population of the Maldives is only around 330,000 Sunni Muslims.
“Radical Islam is getting very, very strong in the Maldives,” said Nasheed, who lost last November’s run off election to Yameen. “Their strength in the military and in the police is very significant.”
Eight Chinese were among a group of foreign tourists injured in a bombing in Male in 2007 carried out by suspected Islamist militants.
Xi leaves the Maldives on Tuesday for Sri Lanka before heading on Wednesday to India, the regional super power. Prime Minister Modi has moved quickly to engage with China, inviting Xi to India soon after taking office in May.