Wednesday, 17 September 2014 01:01
By Neville de Silva
Global Times: Chinese President Xi Jinping will kick off his visit to Sri Lanka on Tuesday. In the past few months, high-level officials from the two sides held several talks, pledging to further deepen bilateral ties.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has leaned heavily on China since coming to power some eight years ago, in terms of both economic development assistance and diplomatic support at international forums.
Since Rajapaksa put an end to the debilitating near-three-decade war against the Tamil rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Western powers, led by the US, have been homing in on Sri Lanka, alleging that its military committed war crimes and Sri Lanka’s leadership should be held accountable.
Despite the ongoing pressure by the US and the UK in particular, which led the charge against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council sessions in March, China was strongly against the US-sponsored resolution that called for an independent investigation against Sri Lanka.
China’s unequivocal stand
During External Affairs Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris’ visit to Beijing in February, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made it very clear where China stood with regard to Western interference in the guise of protecting human rights.
“China opposes some countries’ interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka under the pretext of human rights issues,” Wang said.
While Sri Lanka is obviously thankful to China for this unequivocal stand, it would like to hear it reiterated by President Xi during his two-day State visit to Colombo.
President Rajapaksa will be heading to New York to address the UN General Assembly sessions this month, at which Sri Lanka is bound to come under sharp Western criticism for what is perceived as a continuing clampdown on internal dissent and ethnic and religious minorities, and for refusing to permit UN war crimes investigators to enter the country.
He wants to put his head in the lion’s den, as it were, proudly wearing China’s assurance of support on his lily-white national costume, for he realises, now at least, that the new battles are to be fought outside the country and not within.
Visible signs of China’s support
Nonetheless, the more visible signs of China’s support for Sri Lanka can be seen in the massive infrastructure projects occurring nationwide.
These projects are fast-transforming Sri Lanka into a modern nation with greater connectivity and the capacity to become the centre of South Asian development and fulfil its ‘five-hub’ growth strategy, positioning Sri Lanka as a global naval, commercial, energy, aviation and knowledge centre.
China is already playing a vital role in helping Sri Lanka achieve better internal and external connectivity with its infrastructure development.
This includes the $ 500 million Colombo Port Terminal inaugurated last year, the construction of a new harbour in southern Sri Lanka not far from the busy Indian Ocean sea lanes, a new international airport also in the south, the country’s first four-lane expressway, and several highways. Some of them are already in the pipeline and approved by the Sri Lankan Cabinet.
Today China has outstripped Japan as Sri Lanka’s main provider of development assistance. It has become Sri Lanka’s second largest trade partner and the second largest sources of imports to Sri Lanka.
China accounted for 9.6% of Sri Lanka’s total trade in 2012, increasing from 5.2% in 2008. Bilateral trade exceeded $3 billion last year. On the cards is a free trade agreement on which both sides have been working and which, it is hoped, will be signed during President Xi’s visit.
At present the trade balance is heavily weighted in favour of China. Though trade between them was over $3 billion, Sri Lanka’s exports to China were only about $100 million.
But an uneven trade balance will not dampen bilateral relations which are built on shared interests and foreign policies.
Foreign Minister Wang told his counterpart that President Xi’s visit will be a “diplomatic landmark.” It indeed seems that way, as Sri Lanka sees the strategic cooperative partnership between them as firming up.
(The author is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist currently living in London.)