Expectations high from China visit

China Sri lankaPrime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe arrives in Beijing on Wednesday on an upbeat note after his government cleared the stalled $1.4 billion Colombo Port City, which had become an irritant in the ties between the two countries after a change of guard in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan Cabinet had formally cleared the project last month, paving the way for Mr. Wickremesinghe’s visit. The decks were cleared after Sri Lanka’s International Trade and Strategic Development Minister Malik Samarawickrama visited China and held talks with the Chinese authorities on a cluster of issues, including the Port City Project.

The signals that Sri Lanka was set to resume the project were loud and clear when in Davos, Mr. Wickremesinghe announced that impediments to big-ticket China-funded infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka had been removed. “So, we are going ahead with many of those projects, including the Port City,” he said. But going beyond infrastructure, the Sri Lankans are seeking Chinese investments in their capital-starved country.

“We are looking at the Chinese participation in the logistics hub of Sri Lanka as well as further investments in the real-estate sector”, Mr. Wickremesinghe said.

Mood upbeat in Beijing

In Beijing, the mood was upbeat ahead of the Prime Minister’s arrival. “We commend the Sri Lankan government’s positive policies towards China and are ready to jointly consolidate the traditional friendship, and deepen pragmatic cooperation through this visit, pushing the China-Sri Lanka strategic cooperative partnership to new heights”, said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, ahead of the visit.

Analysts say that the doors are now wide open to deepen Colombo-Beijing ties in all fields, including defence. Mr. Wickremasinghe arrives soon after Beijing hosted Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli of Nepal, a visit that has signed a major transit agreement as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road connectivity initiative.

China also attaches centrality to Sri Lanka to amplify its Maritime Silk Road — an oceanic connectivity initiative that covers the Indian Ocean. In a bid to anchor their presence in the Indian Ocean, the Chinese have also been engaged in developing Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. China is also establishing Djibouti in the Horn of Africa as a military base to service logistical needs of Chinese warships.

The expansion of the Hambantota Port, to which Mr. Wickremasinghe alluded, is expected to cement China-funded infrastructure along a string of Indian Ocean ports, starting from Myanmar’s port of Kyaukphyu, within the ambit of the Maritime Silk Road.

Observers say that China’s growing influence in South Asia poses a challenge to New Delhi, which could do well to revamp of its neighbourhood policy.

Xinhua had earlier reported that Sri Lanka hopes to strengthen its defence ties with China this year. It had paraphrased remarks by Sri Lankan defence secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi that “China supported Sri Lanka to end the war against Tamil Tiger rebels and the government is in discussions to further strengthen the defence relations between the two countries”. (The Hindu)

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