China has for the first time released details of its recently announced “maritime Silk Road” plan, announcing that the Indian Ocean-focused initiative will prioritise building ports and improving infrastructure in littoral countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

China is also planning to establish free trade zones in Indian Ocean countries as part of the plan — a move that will reinforce China’s deepening economic presence in the Indian Ocean Region and in India’s neighbourhood.

The maritime Silk Road plan was unveiled in October last year when President Xi Jinping travelled to Southeast Asia. Since then, Chinese officials have highlighted the initiative as a key diplomatic priority for Mr. Xi’s government.

Nations from Malaysia and Singapore to India, Sri Lanka and the Gulf countries have all been sounded out about the plan. It had, however, remained unclear what the plan would actually entail.

In the first official details of the plan, a report in the China Securities Journal said a “priority” of the initiative was “port construction” and free trade zones.

“The plan is expected to focus on infrastructure construction of countries along the route, including ports of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh,” the report said. China is already involved in port projects in the three countries, in Gwadar, Hambantota and Chittagong.

China hopes to “coordinate customs, quality supervision, e-commerce and other agencies to facilitate the scheme”, as well as set up free trade zones, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing the report.

China’s southern provinces of Yunnan — which borders Myanmar and is at the centre of another economic plan to build a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor — and Guangxi Zhuang may be tasked with pushing the plan.

The initiative was first proposed by Mr. Xi when he visited Southeast Asia in October last year. The plan was reinforced by Premier Li Keqiang, who also visited Asean countries last year and announced the setting up of a 3 billion Yuan (around $500 million) maritime cooperation fund.

The initiative, which will deepen Chinese economic and maritime links with both Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries, is being seen by some analysts as to assuage regional anxieties about China’s growing military and naval presence amid a number of disputes.

Zhou Bo, a strategic scholar at the Academy of Military Science, said in a recent article the “maritime Silk Road” may be a response to the “string of pearls” theory — a suggestion that China intended to build military bases in littoral countries, from Sri Lanka to Pakistan and Bangladesh.