China's Xi Jinping starts South Asia tour in Maldives; will visit Sri Lanka & India

Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) looks on as he arrives alongside Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen (left) near the capital Male in the Maldives on Sept 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) looks on as he arrives alongside Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen (left) near the capital Male in the Maldives on Sept 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

MALE (Maldives)(AFP) - China's President Xi Jinping was in the Maldives on Monday beginning a three-nation tour of South Asia with a historic visit to an island paradise gaining a new reputation as a hotbed of militant Islamists.

Xi, who arrived late Sunday, will hold talks with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen and then be guest of honour at a state banquet in a country which is an increasingly popular tourist destination for well-heeled Chinese.

It is the first visit by a leader from Beijing since the former British protectorate gained independence in 1965 but it 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 said.

"The thrust of the talks will be on trade and aid rather than security."

The source said the government was keen not to raise eyebrows in India by taking up sensitive security issues as New Delhi considers the islands to be within its sphere of influence.

Yameen is known to be keen on securing China's funding for an ambitious project to build a road bridge between the capital island Male and the nearby Hululle island where the international airport is located.

Local officials said a model of the one-kilometre bridge was expected to be shown to Xi after a welcome ceremony.

"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.

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 across the equator, and straddling international shipping routes. Maldives received just over one million tourists last year and over 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.

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. They have people in strategic positions within both."

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.

Despite his hard-line nationalist reputation, India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has moved quickly to engage with China, inviting Xi to India soon after taking office in May.

But he has also sought to stop India's neighbours falling further into China's embrace, choosing Bhutan and Nepal for his first foreign trips.

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