A pivotal boost for China–Lanka ties | Daily News

A pivotal boost for China–Lanka ties

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with top Chinese foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, in Colombo recently.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with top Chinese foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, in Colombo recently.

China–Sri Lanka relations have stood the test of time. What continued from the ancient spiritual ties since the visits of Chinese Buddhist monks centuries ago, received a big boost when the Rubber-Rice deal was signed in 1952, even before the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two newly emerged independent countries. The Ceylon–China Trade Agreement of 1952 was undoubtedly the most useful trade agreement negotiated by Sri Lanka and one of the most successful and durable trade agreements in the world, having been in operation for 30 years.

Last week the ties were given another pep-up when a top Chinese official arrived in Sri Lanka, in what was described as the first visit by a Chinese delegate to South Asia since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The high-powered Chinese delegation led by senior Chinese leader and top foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, who is a member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo and the Director of the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission, the top policy-making body, held discussions with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on October 9.

Yang’s first stop on a four-nation tour was Colombo and then he proceeded to the UAE, Algeria and Serbia. His talks in Colombo resulted in strengthening cooperation between Sri Lanka and China in the areas of combating the global pandemic and revival of economic relations.

On the premise that a basic requirement to ensure rapid growth in trade is to enter into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), China and Sri Lanka plan to restart discussions on a FTA, President Rajapaksa said. “China’s selfless help and governance experience are of vital importance to Sri Lanka’s economic and social development,” he told the Chinese envoy Yang and added that he was targeting a China-style development model for Sri Lanka and sought greater investments and a larger market share for Sri Lankan products. He urged Beijing to swiftly complete the China-backed Hambantota Industrial Zone and the Port City in Colombo, the massive US$ 1.4 billion joint project.

Recalling his visits to China, President Rajapaksa said, “I have seen massive development, especially in rural areas. My target is to bring about similar development, especially in rural areas in Sri Lanka, and to raise the living conditions of the people in this country, especially that of the poor. I look forward to seeing a visible progress in the Port City project over the next four years.”

In an obvious reference to the allegations that such heavy Chinese-funded projects were not financially viable and that Sri Lanka would face difficulties in repaying the loans, the President explained that he wanted to disprove the perception that China was funding developmental projects in Sri Lanka to gain influence in local affairs. “Many geopolitical analyses interpret this project as a ‘debt trap’ set up by China to gain control over Sri Lankan affairs. I want to prove that it is not the case and that this large-scale project will help improve the living standards of the people. We are convinced that it would be a project with a vast potential for generating income and employment opportunities,” he told the Chinese delegation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping invited President Rajapaksa to China immediately after the November 2019 election victory. The President could not undertake the visit in the wake of the global pandemic. Hence, Yang’s visit fulfilled the requirement for high-level exchanges between the two countries. In addition to pledging China’s continued support to Sri Lanka in international forums, including at the UN Human Rights Council, Yang said, “China’s assistance will not be just lip service but concrete action to achieve the development goals.”

President Rajapaksa expressed satisfaction over the current state of Sino–Sri Lanka relations and said China has been a long-standing friend who supported Sri Lanka irrespective of the Government in power in Colombo.

“China extensively supported us to defeat terrorism. Bilateral relations reached a higher level following the end of the armed conflict. China contributed to a number of large-scale infrastructure development projects. Hambantota Port, the Port City project, and the Southern Expressway are some of them,” he said.

In the aftermath of Yang’s visit, China announced a US$ 90 million grant to Sri Lanka, for medical care, education and water supplies in Sri Lanka’s rural areas, which would contribute to the well-being of the rural people in a post-COVID era.

Liu Yang Sloan of the NeoChina International Research Centre said as a follow-up to Yang’s visit, China and Sri Lanka could jointly implement rural revitalization (RR) projects based on the successes achieved in underdeveloped provinces in China. During the meeting with Yang Jiechi and the Sri Lanka Government, the importance for Sri Lanka and China to carry out RR-related cooperation at the macro level was referred to.

He said the NeoChina Research Centre could support Sri Lanka to develop the RR system into an efficient and effective mechanism which will be directly beneficial to the people. “We also could support the SL Government to develop a centralized ICT platform and a Control and Coordination Centre for Rural Revitalization so that the Central Government and State offices will be able to monitor the live progress of the RR-related projects islandwide,” Sloan said.

The NeoChina Center is confident that once Sri Lanka and China jointly develops the RR mechanism under the Sri Lanka context, Sri Lanka will be the model country and bridge for other developing countries.

Sloan said that the most significant statement made by Yang Jiechi to President Rajapaksa was that “China has identified a number of areas conducive to the development of multilateral cooperation with Sri Lanka in addition to completing large-scale projects already underway; these include agriculture, education, tourism, water supply, healthcare, medical supplies, modern technology, the Digital Economy, the Blue Economy, and labor training.” In essence, the most significant outcome of the visit of the top Chinese delegation was, as Yang said, that the two countries, as strategic cooperation partners, should continue to maintain high-level exchanges and consolidate political mutual trust.

Responding most favourably, President Rajapaksa reassured that Sri Lanka will firmly commit itself to deepening friendship with China, and is willing to make every effort to press forward the key Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) cooperation projects such as the Colombo Port City and the comprehensive development of the Hambantota Harbour.

During talks with Yang, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa thanked China for its support in combating the Coronavirus, saying China’s strong support in various fields has helped Sri Lanka strengthen its capacity to resume work and production amid the pandemic.

Sri Lanka will work with China to maintain the firm mutual support, and welcomes more Chinese companies to invest and do business, he said, while hoping for increased bilateral people-to-people exchanges in the future.