Maldives and China on Wednesday signed 20 agreements, including one on accelerating cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative, according to a statement issued by Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu’s office.

The agreements mark a “significant step in bilateral relations” between the two countries, read the statement.

The Belt and Road Initiative is a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure scheme launched in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping that envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to mainly connect China with Asia and Europe.

India has been critical of the Belt and Road Initiative as one of its components, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. New Delhi has maintained that the corridor violates India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The agreement comes amid a diplomatic row between the Maldives and India, pertaining to remarks by three deputy ministers of the island nation about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s social media posts.

The social media posts showed the prime minister snorkelling during his recent visit to Lakshadweep. Maldivian minister Maryam Shiuna had reacted to the picture calling Modi a “clown”. “The puppet of Israel Mr Narendra diver with life jacket,” she had said in a social media post, which has now been deleted.

Following an uproar on social media by some Indians, Shiuna and two other ministers – Malsha Shareef and Mahzoom Majid – were suspended on Sunday.

On Monday, Muizzu, who is widely seen as sympathetic to Beijing’s interests, arrived in China on a five-day state visit. He held a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Wednesday, following which, the agreements were signed.

Among the key agreements is a memorandum of understanding on tourism cooperation between China and the Maldives. This comes against the backdrop of the island nation seeing a spate of cancellations of reservations made by Indians since Shiuna’s remarks.

Muizzu had said on Tuesday that his government plans to diversify tourism in the Maldives and offer new experiences to tourists. “China was our number one market pre-Covid, and it is my request that we intensify efforts for China to regain this position,” he said.

The two countries agreed on an action plan to build a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” for the 2024 and 2028 period.

Beijing and Malé further signed agreements on strengthening digital economy cooperation and promoting investment cooperation in green development.

During the talks between the two leaders, Xi called Muizzu “an old friend”, reported Reuters. He also said that the Maldivian president’s visit would mark the beginning of a new chapter in bilateral relations between China and the Maldives and expressed hope to strengthen cooperation in various areas, including the maritime and digital economies.

On his part, Muizzu expressed “gratitude for China’s significant role in the Maldives’ economic success and for China’s generous assistance in social housing, higher education and infrastructure development of the Maldives”, according to a press release.

Citing World Bank data, Reuters reported that Maldives owes China $1.37 billion, or around 20% of its public debt. Malé’s debt to India stands at $123 billion.