China has invited the president of Laos for a state visit later this month, in the latest step to boost regional ties after President Xi Jinping resumed in-person meetings with fellow leaders. “Laotian President Thongloun Sisoulith will pay a state visit to China from November 29 to December 1 upon the invitation of [Xi],” the international liaison arm of China’s ruling Communist Party said on Thursday. Xi has held a series of meetings with foreign counterparts in the past weeks, especially at the Group of 20 summit in Bali and then the Apec forum in Bangkok. He had not travelled overseas for more than two years, after China imposed some of the world’s strictest Covid-19 control measures in early 2020. His first trip abroad since then was a visit to Central Asia in September for a security summit. China’s move to resume in-person meetings at the highest level comes as relations continue to spiral downwards with the US – which has vowed to renew its focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in countering Beijing’s influence in the region. Beijing has also stepped up efforts to win over Southeast Asian neighbours, mostly recently with a proposal to fast track negotiations for an upgrade to their giant free-trade zone – dubbed the Asean-China Free Trade Area “Version 3.0”. This was put forward by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in a series of meetings with leaders of the 10-nation bloc at the Asean summit in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh last month. China accelerating ‘Version 3.0’ of Asean free-trade zone amid US tensions Thongloun, who leads the ruling Laotian communist party, would be the third Asean head of state to visit China this year, after Indonesian President Joko Widodo in July and Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong in October. With his visit, Xi will have in recent weeks met all but three Asean counterparts – the leaders of Cambodia , Malaysia and Myanmar. Laos, one of the world’s least developed economies, has been one of the Asean bloc’s most dependent and closest partners of China – the world’s No 2 economic power. Bananas, beef, gold: China’s hunger feeds ‘Made in Laos’ line, but at what cost? The landlocked country was one of the few in the region- together with Myanmar and Cambodia – that did not join the 14-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a US-led initiative launched by President Joe Biden in May. Laos has also strongly sided with Beijing on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, against fellow Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. But even as its economic and political relationship with China deepens, it has retained close ties with another powerful communist neighbour – Vietnam . Laos and China last year celebrated the official launch of the 422km (263 mile) Boten-Vientiane high-speed railway , backed by Beijing under its intercontinental Belt and Road Initiative and connecting the Laotian capital to the border with China. The US$6 billion project, however, has raised concerns about the small nation’s total debt exposure to China, its biggest creditor. A World Bank report in April said half of Laos’s US$14.5 billion in public debt – or 88 per cent of its 2021 GDP – was owed to China on loans to fund projects including the China-Laos railway.