NEW DELHI (AP) — The new president of the Maldives has called India the island nation's "closest friend," welcome words for New Delhi after years of growing economic influence by Beijing.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih spoke Sunday in New Delhi, on his first overseas trip since his election. In September he defeated strongman Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who had forged increasingly closer ties to China during his five years in office.
India has long seen the Indian Ocean nation of 400,000 people as part of its sphere of influence. China, though, sees the Maldives as a key cog in its "Belt and Road" infrastructure projects, which follow ancient trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. Beijing is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in an airport expansion, housing developments and other projects in the Maldives.
But speaking at an India-Maldives business forum, Solih told business leaders that "India is not only our closest friend, it is also our largest trading partner," the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
He said the Maldives is ripe for more Indian investment, insisting the country is committed to providing the "protection and legal cover" that investors require.
The Maldives has faced years of political turmoil since the first democratic elections a decade ago.
Tourism dominates the Maldives' economy, with wealthy foreigners flown directly to expensive resort islands.
The Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank, estimates China's loans to Maldives total at least $1.3 billion, a quarter of the island nation's gross domestic product.
Chinese loans to the Maldives have fueled fears in New Delhi that Beijing is trying to encroach on New Delhi's influence in the Indian Ocean.