Sri Lanka-China links forge ahead

fgjkIs this the way? Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera seems to be guiding his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi after welcoming him at the Foreign Ministry yesterday. Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama also joined for crucial closed-door talks before Wang delivered a statement to local media – Pic by Pradeep Pathirana 

By Uditha Jayasinghe

Kicking off the first high level visit since the new Government came into power, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi yesterday reaffirmed strong relations with Sri Lanka, pledging to sign an early Free Trade Agreement, continue large scale infrastructure and private investment, and smooth-over potential India concerns.

Wang met with Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama and his counterpart for hour-long talks before delivering a statement at the Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry shortly after his arrival where Wang was extensive in his praise of relations between the two countries. He met President Sirisena last evening and will meet Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe this morning before winding up his short visit.

President Maithripala Sirisena is expected to visit Beijing in 2017 to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations with China, his second visit since coming to power. The Chinese Prime Minister is also expected to visit Sri Lanka next year.

Wang’s visit comes as Sri Lanka comes in the middle of negotiating a fresh agreement for the $1.5 billion Port City project, setting up an investment zone in Hambantota exclusive for Chinese companies and considering a debt-equity swap by their Chinese counterparts.  Sri Lanka is also pushing for an FTA with China.

Sri Lanka has an extensive debt burden with China estimated to surpass $5billion, mostly of medium term loans that are due payment over the next few years. The bulk of the loans are for massive infrastructure projects, which the Government claims has put pressure on economic management.

“Our historical relationship is rooted in our deep connection and bond in strong political foundation, mutual interest and social support. No matter how the international situation or our domestic situation changes, our strategic partnership featuring everlasting friendship and sincere mutual assistance will continue to develop,” Wang said.

He also outlined plans for extensive engagement with Sri Lanka, refocusing on foreign direct investment and new ventures introduced by the Sirisena administration.

“We can help Sri Lanka develop itself as a shipping centre in the Indian Ocean and to accelerate the process of improving the capacity for independent development. China stands ready to work with Sri Lanka on the basis of mutual benefit and cooperation to promote international industrial capacity and focus on port, highway, railway, airport and other programs to create new cooperation models so that we can continue development and shared prosperity.”

China is the second largest source of tourists to Sri Lanka and the fastest growing market. Sri Lanka earned $1.1billion from the sector in the first quarter of 2016 but the industry could see a slump from Brexit. Wang pledged to encourage more arrivals to Sri Lanka.

“Tourism will be a brought spot and official cooperation will continue to attract more Chinese people visit your beautiful country for sightseeing holidays and shopping. Both sides stand ready to further work on the main blue ocean economy, maritime centre and cooperation on maritime security. The two sides also discussed international issues in a bid to maintain stability.”

In a clear effort to sooth possible tensions with India Wang insisted that relations between Sri Lanka and China would have no impact on a third party.

“Cooperation between China and Sri Lanka does not target any third country, nor will it affect our respective relations with other countries and we stand ready to work closely with other South Asian countries for the goal of achieving development.”

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera also corroborated talks on key infrastructure projects with his Chinese counterpart and said both sides would work towards the early signing of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

“Discussions were also made of the belt and road initiative put forward by China. Sri Lanka reiterated its participation in this initiative as it is in line with the Government’s initiative to make Sri Lanka the hub of the Indian Ocean.  We discussed the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route for greater economic cooperation, which is viewed as a road of friendship, economic cooperation and socio and high level connectivity.”

Samaraweera also said Sri Lanka would hold a “Sri Lanka festival” in Beijing next year to celebrate the 60th anniversary of relations between the two countries.

“We also agreed to further enhance cooperation in the field of trade, which we hope will be achieved with the early conclusion of the FTA between our two countries. Sri Lanka also welcomes the active support from Chinese enterprises towards the development of Sri Lanka’s economy.”

Source : http://www.ft.lk/article/553852/SL-China-links-forge-ahead#sthash.GGkQHoKb.dpuf

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