The Sri Lankan premier visits China: a timely rapprochement
Posted on April 8th, 2016

By Tim Collard Courtesy

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe is paying a visit to China on April 6-9. He has met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and some other senior officials for talks on a variety of subjects including security matters, economic cooperation and the Maritime Silk Road project. It is Wickremasinghe’s first visit as prime minister to China, since the new Sri Lankan government was formed in January of last year. In 2015, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to over US$4.5 billion.

The background to this visit is especially positive for the Chinese side. When the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena took office in January 2015, relations with China were overshadowed by suspicion. A plan, inaugurated in September 2014 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, to establish a new port city project in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo was put on ice by the new Sri Lankan government, even though China was providing the funds. The prime minister’s visit took place in the context of a Sri Lankan decision to reverse the suspension and give the green light to the project.

The Chinese-backed consortium CHEC Port City Colombo has welcomed the “positive step,” and Wickremasinghe’s visit to China will serve to nail it down. It is hoped that the meeting between the Chinese and Sri Lankan premiers will also give a boost to the proposals for a special economic zone (SEZ) in Hambantota, southern Sri Lanka, where a US$1.7 billion Chinese-built seaport and airport has as yet failed to fulfil their potential; new Chinese investment would be most welcome. Sino-Sri Lankan relations are thus clearly back on course after a temporary setback.

This rapprochement clearly benefits both sides. Sri Lanka’s finances are in a parlous situation, as their central bank has announced that a major loan, US$1.5 billion, is being sought from the International Monetary Fund. The newly unblocked Chinese investment would be on a similar scale, so it may alleviate the necessity. The Port City project aims to build offices, hotels and shopping centres on 233 hectares of reclaimed land. Further Chinese investments in ports, airports and industrial zones may follow.

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