China's President Xi Jinping wins backing from the Maldives for 'maritime silk road'

Visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) shakes hands with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen at the President’s Office in the capital island Male on Sept 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) shakes hands with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen at the President’s Office in the capital island Male on Sept 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

MALE, Maldives (AFP) - China's President Xi Jinping secured Maldivian support on Monday for a "21st-century maritime silk road" as he began a South Asian tour in the strategically located Indian Ocean atoll nation.

The Maldives is best known for its tourist industry but also straddles major international shipping lanes, and Chinese investment there has grown significantly as Beijing tries to secure vital trade routes.

In a joint statement, the two countries also said they agreed to cooperate on security issues - a potentially sensitive issue in a region traditionally dominated by India.

"The Maldives welcomes and supports the proposal put forward by China to build the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and is prepared to actively participate in relevant cooperation," the statement said. "The two sides agreed to enhance cooperation in other areas, such as marine, economy, and security," it added, without elaborating.

Xi is the first Chinese head of state to visit the Maldives since the former British protectorate gained independence in 1965.

It is his second meeting with President Abdulla Yameen in a matter of weeks, following their talks last month in the Chinese city of Nanjing.

India has regarded China's growing influence among its neighbours with concern, leading new Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prioritise regional relationships which critics say the previous government neglected.

A Maldivian government source said before the meeting that Male was keen to avoid upsetting regional superpower India by bringing up sensitive security issues, since New Delhi considers the islands to be within its sphere of influence.

Mr Yameen said the Maldives was "honoured" to be a part of the trade route initiative, flagged by Mr Xi during a visit to Indonesia last year and intended to revive a route running from China through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to Europe.

The proposal called for increased maritime cooperation between China and South-east Asian nations, and for China to work with partners to develop ports and other maritime infrastructure.

"I am confident that this is the beginning of an era of heightened and sustained cooperation between the Maldives and China," Mr Yameen said.

Mr Yameen also secured Chinese support for an ambitious project to build a road bridge between central Male island and nearby Hululle island, where the international airport is located.

The Chinese have become the largest single group of holidaymakers to visit the Maldives, a nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered some 850km 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 US$2.3 billion (S$2.9 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 Mr 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 saw a 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 the Islamic State 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 Mr 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.

Mr Xi leaves the Maldives on Tuesday for Sri Lanka before heading on Wednesday to India.

Mr Modi has moved quickly to engage with China, inviting Mr Xi to India soon after taking office in May.