PORT OF SPAIN (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago late on Friday for the first leg of a Latin America and Caribbean tour aiming to strengthen Beijing's trade ties in the region.
President Xi kicked off his trip in this tiny English-speaking country off the coast of Venezuela before heading to Costa Rica and Mexico, ahead of a June 7-8 summit with US President Barack Obama.
The Chinese leader's plane touched down around 7pm at Port of Spain's airport, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who said she was "honoured" that he made her country his first stop.
President Xi's visit to Trinidad - the first by a Chinese president - follows a trip to Port of Spain on May 27 by US Vice-President Joe Biden, who attended a summit with Caribbean leaders. President Xi is scheduled to leave Trinidad on Sunday.
China's trade ties with Latin America have soared in recent years as the world's second biggest economy taps into the region's mineral and oil wealth to fuel growth.
President Xi - who took office in March in a once-in-a-decade power transfer in Communist-ruled Beijing - said ahead of the trip that he had "full confidence in the prospects of China-Latin America relations". While there is "a vast ocean between China and Latin America, our hearts are closely linked", Mr Xi told regional media outlets in a joint written interview, according to a transcript by Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
The visit is the first by a Chinese president to the English-speaking Caribbean, but not for Mr Xi, who visited in 2009 and 2011 while serving as China's vice-president.
On Saturday, Mr Xi is due to meet with Persad-Bissessar and other senior Trinidad and Tobago officials, as well as the leaders of Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Granada, Guyana, Jamaica and Suriname.
"Trinidad and Tobago is in an ideal position to facilitate deepened relations between China and the Caribbean region," the Caribbean country's foreign minister Winston Dookeran in an interview with Xinhua.
Ms Persad-Bissessar's government sees the Chinese leader's visit as an opportunity to deepen cooperation in trade, construction and heavy industries.
The two sides will sign trade and education cooperation agreements, according to Xinhua.
At a news conference in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei described Trinidad, a nation of 1.3 million people, as "China's important cooperative partner in the English-speaking Caribbean region".
While Trinidad, Costa Rica and Mexico recognise Beijing, six Central American and five 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.
"We have always been very strong on one-China policy and I think they appreciate what Trinidad and Tobago has done," Ms Persad-Bissessar said.
In a sign of China's growing presence, the Asian giant is overtaking the 27-nation European Union to become Latin America's second-largest source of imports, according to the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, or ECLAC.
Brazil and Mexico, Latin America's first and second biggest economies, respectively, are the top two markets for China in the region.