China’s President Xi Jinping will this year become the first Chinese head of state to visit Sri Lanka in three decades, underlining Beijing’s renewed push to deepen its strategic and economic presence in the neighbourhood and in the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Xi’s visit was discussed in Beijing this week as Sri Lankan Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, as the President’s Special Envoy, met with the Chinese leadership.

The Chinese leader will become the first President to visit Sri Lanka since former leader Li Xiannian in 1986. His visit assumes significance in the context of strengthening ties between the two countries, with China investing heavily in the island nation.

A $500 million- built port built by the Chinese was inaugurated in Colombo last year giving Beijing a strong foothold in one of the busiest international shipping routes in the world. With heavy investment in infrastructure, including in a massive port it helped build in Hambantota along Sri Lanka’s southern coast, China is said to have surpassed Japan and India as the biggest contributor to investments in the island nation.

‘The China card’

Foreign policy experts have often pointed to Sri Lanka playing the “China card” against India, which has invested in some key projects in the neighbouring country, including a massive housing project targeting 50,000 homes in the war-torn north that it is currently engaged in.

For Chinese President Xi, Sri Lanka has become a particularly important country as a crucial point on his government’s signature “maritime silk road” economic initiative, which the President unveiled in October in a bid to boost maritime connectivity and economic ties in the neighbourhood.

Mr. Xi is likely to stop in Colombo as he visits India later this year.

Pakistan is also an expected destination, according to analysts, as Chinese leaders usually do not visit India without stopping in Pakistan subsequently, as Premier Li Keqiang did last year. Mr. Li’s visit to India last May was his first overseas visit after taking office.

On Wednesday, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang discussed with Sri Lankan Minister Basil Rajapaksa on-going talks over a free trade agreement. He called on both sides “to begin negotiation on their proposed free trade agreement as soon as possible, encourage Chinese enterprises to expand investment in Sri Lanka and strengthen the strategic partnership of cooperation between the two countries”, the official Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.

Mr. Wang also said that the upcoming visit by Mr. Xi would be “a diplomatic landmark” for both countries, the Sri Lankan Embassy in Beijing quoted him as saying in a statement.

Mr. Basil Rajapaksa hailed China’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s development, telling Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng that Colombo was willing to fast track free trade negotiations with China emerging as “the largest single development partner”. He also noted that there was a 140 per cent increase in tourist arrivals from China in the past year.