BEIJING -- China is steadily advancing efforts to create a sea lane through the Indian Ocean by actively investing in port facilities of South Asian countries.
Under its "string of pearls" strategy, China wants to build a network of port and logistics facilities to transport natural resources from the Middle East and Africa without passing through the South China Sea.
President Xi Jinping is visiting Maldives from Sunday as part of his South Asian tour, marking the first trip to that country by a Chinese chief of state. In a statement to the media, Xi stressed Maldives' importance in not only economic relations but also the political arena, including regional security.
Maldives is a small island nation of just over 300,000. But its location, essential for creating the sea lane, explains China's laserlike focus. Its proximity to the U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia is also likely a factor.
Chinese have a strong presence in Maldives, accounting for nearly 30% of all foreign tourists there. Large residential buildings constructed by Chinese companies are called "Chinese castles," and Chinese workers abound in the country.
India, which also has strong ties with Maldives, is alarmed by China's aggressive approach to the country. The two will engage in a tug of war trying to get Maldives on board with their respective agendas.
China has invested in ports and logistics facilities of Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar as well.
In Sri Lanka, it has aided in the development of the Port of Hambantota, which is growing into one of South Asia's largest ports, and has also undertaken core construction in the expansion of the Port of Colombo. In Pakistan, it has built Gwadar Port in the south. And in Bangladesh, it has helped repair Chittagong Port.
When Xi visits Sri Lanka, the two countries are expected to agree on launching official talks toward a free trade agreement. China has replaced Japan as Sri Lanka's top aid provider.
India, the U.S. and Japan are all alarmed by the Chinese moves. India, suspecting China of trying to secure facilities for military ends, has devised a "necklace of diamonds" counterstrategy with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to create a separate sea lane.
Xi is also slated to visit India from Sept. 17, but the discussion will focus primarily on economic ties. The two countries have a long way to go in building trust with respect to regional security.
China is actively touting economic partnerships with South Asian countries, apparently to camouflage its military intentions.