COLOMBO – China, Sri Lanka’s biggest donor of foreign aid this year, has assured its ‘fullest cooperation’ to develop the South Asian island nation amidst increasing concern by India.
During a recent meeting with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged his government’s continued assistance to help develop the country.
Yi, who was on a three-day official visit that concluded on July 10, was the first highest ranking Chinese official to visit Sri Lanka under Sirisena’s administration.
During the meeting, Yi appreciated Colombo’s approval for resumption of the $1.5-billion port city project in Sri Lanka which was suspended soon after Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took office in 2015 citing environmental concerns and procedural irregularities.
The project, which kicked off in 2014 during former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s term, was, however, granted approval by the current administration early this year after the government’s failure to bring in substantial foreign investments.
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, who initially gave China a cold shoulder, finally had no choice but to reach out to Beijing for funds.
During the meeting with Yi, Sirisena welcomed increased investments from China’s public and private sectors. He also emphasized the need for both countries to work together for mutual benefits.
Addressing the media in Colombo, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said: “I want to stress that in its pursuit of development, Sri Lanka can count on China as the most sincere and reliable partner for cooperation.”
Kang also noted that regardless of the changing international situation, China and Sri Lanka’s strategic partnership will continue to move forward.
During his visit, Yi also campaigned for Sri Lanka’s support for the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road.’ He said Sri Lanka could be an important partner in the initiative, taking into account its strategic location in the region.
“Through joint construction of the Maritime Silk Road, China is willing to help Sri Lanka realize its development vision and help it become the future shipping, logistics and even financial center in the Indian Ocean,” Yi said.
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said his government will support the initiative.
Samaraweera said: “Sri Lanka reiterated its participation in this initiative, as it is in line with the government’s initiatives to make Sri Lanka the hub of the Indian Ocean trade, a position it occupied in the ancient past. We discussed the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road for greater economic cooperation, which is viewed as a road of friendship, economic cooperation, socio and cultural exchange and connectivity.”
Sri Lankan leaders and the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister also decided to conduct regular high level interactions which will pave the way for a stronger relationship between the two countries. Sri Lanka is also in discussion with China to sign a free trade agreement.
Yi’s visit and Sri Lanka’s support toward the Belt and Road initiative, however, sparked fresh concerns in neighboring India.
A political analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, said India is concerned over the recent visits between Sri Lankan and Chinese officials in the past few months.
In April, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe went to Beijing on a three-day official visit while in June, the government announced that Sirisena has been invited for a second time to China by President Xi Jinping.
Further, Sri Lanka’s announcement that it will support China’s Maritime Silk Road has not gone down well with India. The Silk Road is seen as an effort by China to encircle India and control the port access along the strategic sea lanes.
The Finance Ministry recently announced that China remained Sri Lanka’s biggest funding source during the first quarter of 2016 from January to April.
According to a report issued by the ministry, of the $855 million on foreign-funded projects, at least half the amount came from China.
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.