The windows of opportunities are wide open to deepen Sino-Sri Lankan ties as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has shed his initial indifference towards China and realized the need to seek its help for a currency swap or to operate the Norochcholai coal power plant. The mood is upbeat as Ranil, after a 15-month wait, begins his three-day Beijing visit.

COLOMBO–In what appears to be a desperate policy change, Sri Lanka is limping towards China, seeking help for a currency swap as the country’s foreign reserves took a tumble, and to operate its main coal-fired power plant, following frequent blackouts and power cuts nationwide since March.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe arrives in Beijing on Wednesday on an upbeat note after his government cleared the stalled $1.4 billion Colombo Port City
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

After forming the government in January 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had adopted an attitude of indifference towards China by suspending the crucial $1.5 billion China-funded Colombo Port City project citing various reasons. That attitude, however, changed in the recent past as he gave the go-ahead for the project followed by his first official visit to China on Wednesday.

The visit comes just two weeks after the prime minister said he was seeking $ 1 billion worth currency swap deal with China as the cash-strapped government faces steep fall in foreign exchange reserves.

The government also sought China’s assistance to operate the Norochcholai coal power plant, which was built by China during Rajapaksa’s administration, along with technical support, following three power outages in the recent past.

Deputy minister of power and renewable energy Ajith Perera alleged that some of the material used in the construction of the 900 MW coal power plant was sub-standard.

While the agreement for the construction work was reached by the previous administration, the present government is seeking ways to get the island nation out of the power crisis, he said.

The coal power plant, which is the main power supplier to the nation, has been suffering from technical faults and regular breakdowns since inception.

Sri Lanka has sought the expert views of Japan and Germany on the root cause for the power failures in March. One transformer of the state-run Ceylon Electricity Board exploded first resulting in a seven-hour power outage across the country, the longest in over 20 years. Then a second transformer caught fire plunging certain parts of the country in darkness.

Following the incidents, President Maithripala Sirisena ordered the military to stand guard at all power installations to avert any possible sabotage.

By relying heavily on China, the former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa alienated other countries. However, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition government, after coming to power,  has been making efforts to mend fences with the U.S., Europe, and India, all who were snubbed by the Rajapaksa government.

Sirisena undertook an official visit to China last year. But Wickremesinghe adopted a more nonchalant attitude towards the world’s most populous country.

However, as the government began to face mounting debts and steep fall in foreign reserves, Wickremesinghe decided to visit China for the first time after coming to power 15 months ago.

According to a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office, Wickremesinghe hopes to advance Sino-Sri Lankan relations ‘to a new level’ during his three-day visit.

Wickremesinghe will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, and sign several agreements.

Wickremesinghe’s China visit is expected to promote co-operation between the two countries in economic affairs, investment and technology, science, sports, tourism development and financial services.

Meanwhile, the eldest son of Rajapaksa, Namal, has questioned Wickremesinghe’s sudden policy change on China.

In a tweet directed at Wickremesinghe, Namal, who is also a parliamentarian, asked, “As Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe prepares to visit, what exactly is Sri Lanka’s policy on China now? Last year, the government hated our ally, now they approve?”

Wickremesinghe did not respond to the tweet.

 Munza Mushtaq is a journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is the former news editor of two leading Sri Lankan newspapers; The Nation and the Sunday Leader. She writes extensively on Sri Lankan current affairs with special focus on politics, human rights and business issues. She is currently the Colombo-based correspondent for International News Services, the Los Angeles Times and the Nikkei Asian Review.

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