HAVANA (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping met his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro Tuesday in a visit to expand investment in the fellow communist nation, his last stop on a four-country Latin American charm offensive.
Castro greeted Xi with military honors at the Palace of the Revolution, where the two later held private talks.
Cuba, the only one-party communist state in the Americas, began opening up its economy in 2008, but has not grown as much as hoped and could desperately use more Chinese investment.
Xi for his part has made a point during his tour of reaching out to countries often shunned by US and European investors, including Venezuela and Argentina as well as Cuba.
The opening of the Cuban economy - which some analysts see as an effort to follow in China's footsteps - has created new opportunities to tighten bilateral ties, said Xi, who arrived Monday night in Havana.
"Cuba is already fully promoting the updating of its economic model, which means new and important development opportunities for Chinese-Cuban ties," he said.
China is already the Caribbean island's second-largest trading partner after Venezuela and its primary source of credit, filling the gap left by the US embargo on Cuba and its long-time exclusion from institutions such as the World Bank.
Coinciding with Xi's trip, about 50 Chinese entrepreneurs traveled to Havana to explore business opportunities, attracted by foreign investment incentives and the future Mariel free trade zone outside the capital.
"We want Chinese businessmen to invest in Cuba and partner with Cuban companies," said Cuba's director general for foreign investment, Deborah Rivas.
Chinese and Cuban officials inaugurated a factory Tuesday that will use Chinese technology to make "biosensors" to monitor diabetics' blood sugar.
On Wednesday Xi is due to travel to Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city, where he is expected to announce Chinese cooperation deals, perhaps in rebuilding housing destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
The Chinese president may also pay a visit to retired revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, 87, who led Cuba for five decades until failing health prompted him to hand power to his 83-year-old brother eight years ago.
Such a visit would echo one by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who kicked off his own Latin America tour in Cuba 10 days ago by meeting with Castro.
The aging father of the Cuban Revolution called the visits "historic" in an article in official newspaper Granma on Tuesday.
China and Russia "are two countries called to lead a new world that will allow the survival of humanity," he said.
The Chinese and Russian leaders' tours have underlined their growing ties with a region often considered the United States' back yard, and bookended a summit of the BRICS group of emerging powers where calls for less US and European dominance of international affairs featured prominently.
The group - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - launched a new US$50-billon development bank and US$100-billion reserve fund designed to provide an alternative to the Western-led World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The Cuban president hailed the move as contributing to "a new international order." Xi kicked off his tour last week in Brazil by proposing a new US$20-billion infrastructure fund for Latin America, underlining the fast-growing Asian giant's increasing interest in the resource-rich region.
The trip, his second to Latin America since taking office last year, has also taken him to Argentina and Venezuela. He offered cash-strapped Buenos Aires an US$11-billion currency swap and signed a raft of oil and mineral deals with Caracas.
Chinese trade with Latin America has grown rapidly in recent years, reaching US$261.6 billion in 2013. China is now the second-largest trading partner of many countries, including Argentina and Cuba, and has been Brazil's largest since 2009.
That is a dramatic change from 1990, when China ranked just 17th on the list of Latin American export destinations.