China's Xi meets Caribbean leaders on trade talks

PORT OF SPAIN (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping met leaders of eight Caribbean countries in Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday, as Beijing seeks to increase its presence in a region long considered America's back yard.

Mr Xi's visit to the oil-rich English-speaking country, the first by a Chinese president, comes just days after a visit to Port of Spain on May 27 by US Vice-President Joe Biden, who attended a summit with Caribbean leaders.

The Chinese president discussed energy and trade issues with the Caribbean leaders, most of whom came away impressed with the encounter.

Coming after Mr Biden's visit, Mr Xi's visit "gives us the sense of the balance that we must recognise that exists on a global basis," said Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie.

"What I found so impressive in the president of China is that he treated the leaders of small Caribbean nations no differently to how he would treat the president of United States" or the British prime minister, Mr Christie said.

Jamaican Prime Minster Portia Simpson said that visits by Biden and Xi's visits were "interesting and good," and told reporters that she hopes that "something happens, something positive, for our region."

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sees China's interest in the region as "very constructive."

"It's a signal to us in the Caribbean that China has been taking us seriously, they have responded to the solidarity we have express them, particularly in the one China policy."

While all of these Caribbean countries, along with Trinidad and Tobago, recognise Beijing, five other Caribbean nations have forged diplomatic relations with self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. The two split in 1949 after a civil war.

Mr Christie also made a pitch for increasing tourism from China, and spoke to Mr Xi about the need for direct flights to the Bahamas and relaxing visa requirements for tourists.

"China is an excellent place to look for tourists," said Mr Christie, who said tourism was "the most effective and quickest way to generate economic activity." Mr Xi also met with the presidents of Surinam and Guyana, Desi Bouterse and Donald Ramotar; and the prime ministers of Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, and Barbados - Baldwin Spencer, Keith Mitchell and Freumdel Stuart.

Separately Guo Jinlong, member of the Chinese Politburo and secretary of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, was on an official visit to nearby Cuba, and island that Xi was not scheduled to visit.

China signed seven agreements on Sunday with Cuba to increase bilateral cooperation on trade, transportation, tourism and biotechnology, state media reported.

China, one of Cuba's main political allies, is the communist island's second most important trade partner after Venezuela, and one of its main sources of credit.

Xi is scheduled to wrap up his Caribbean visit late Sunday and travel to Costa Rica, and later Mexico and the United States.