PORT OF SPAIN: Chinese President Xi Jinping heads to oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago on Friday at the start of a tour of Latin America and the Caribbean, as Beijing seeks to increase trade in the region.
Xi is due to arrive in the tiny English-speaking country off the coast of Venezuela at around 2130 GMT, kicking off a trip that will take him to Costa Rica and Mexico, before a June 7-8 summit with US President Barack Obama.
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.
His visit to Trinidad, the first by a Chinese president, follows a visit to Port of Spain on May 27 by US Vice President Joe Biden, who attended a summit with Caribbean leaders.
Xi — who took office in March in a once-in-a-decade power transfer in Communist-ruled Beijing — said ahead of the trip 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," 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 the first trip to the region for Xi, who visited in 2009 and 2011 while serving as China's vice president.
On Saturday, Xi is to meet with Prime Minister Kamla 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.
While Trinidad, Costa Rica and Mexico recognize 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.
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 (ECLAC).
Brazil and Mexico, Latin America's first and second biggest economies, respectively, are the top two markets for China in the region.