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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2958

China woos Sri Lanka with more infrastructure projects: President Sirisena to visit Beijing this week

By Dr. Abdul Ruff

Sri Lanka of late seems to have begun walking a tightrope with a balancing stick, negotiating between China and India. Under tremendous pressure from New Delhi, Colombo cancelled the Chinese projects that made Beijing puzzled but it s seriously thinking of revising its diplomatic premises to advance its economic interests.

Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena heads to Beijing on 25th March, 2015 -this week to participate in the Annual Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) which is scheduled to be held from 26th to 29th March, 2015 in Boao, Hainan, China.

During his visit President Srisena would also hold talks with China's leadership, seeking to smooth ruffled feathers after scuttling Chinese-funded projects and seeking stronger ties with regional rival India. In order to appease New Delhi, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who visited Beijing a month after Sirisena came to power, said the new administration will not allow Chinese submarines in Colombo.

The visit of Sirisena to Beijing is about bringing balance in Sri Lanka's engagement with two Asian rivals. Despite concerns over the suspension of the Port City Project, China is eying more investments on infrastructure development projects in Sri Lanka with one Chinese company having submitted a US$760 million proposal for the upgrading of the railway track from Colombo to Kandy. Colombo is also seeking to renegotiate huge loans given by China for projects at rates as high as 8 percent, Sri Lanka Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake told reporters recently.

China had emerged as Sri Lanka's biggest single financier today, accounting for about 40 percent of some $2.03 billion in foreign money spent on infrastructure projects in 2013, according to the latest Central Bank of Sri Lanka report.

President Sirisena will hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping along with other members of the leadership, Colombo said. The former government allowed China a free run in Sri Lanka, and President Sirisena wants to maintain a normal relationship that will not irritate India. Experts say the president will be seeking a divorce of sorts from China during the three-day state visit starting Wednesday, while trying not to upset the economic giant.

Sirisena swept to power in January, ending a decade of rule by Mahinda Rajapakse, whose close alliance with Beijing had irked the island's traditional close ally India. Sirisena has moved to wind back Beijing's influence, which became the strategically located island's biggest foreign financier and enjoyed significant political and even military influence under Rajapakse. Sirisena has unnerved China by suspending a $1.4 billion "port city" project in Colombo that India considered a security risk, and ordering a review of other Beijing-financed projects and loans amid allegations of corruption.

Sirisena made India, rather than China, for his first foreign trip after winning the January elections, seeking to rebuild ties with Delhi damaged by tensions over Beijing's influence on the island. Delhi was reportedly furious after Chinese submarines were allowed to dock at Colombo port last year when Rajapakse was still in power. Beijing has been accused of seeking to develop facilities around the Indian Ocean in a "string of pearls" strategy to counter the rise of rival India and secure its own economic interests.

During his state visit to Sri Lanka, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged US$380 million under an Indian Line of Credit for the development of the railway sector in Sri Lanka. Both India and China have invested in railway projects in Sri Lanka. The reconstruction of the northern railway line was carried out as an Indian Government-funded project. The train service came to a halt during the height of the armed conflict in the North and East. Shandong High-Speed Group Co. Ltd. has in its proposal said the travel time between Colombo and Kandy or vice versa could be reduced to one hour and 35 minutes when compared with the excess of three hours now necessary for a train trip from the same distance. Company officials said the proposal was submitted about a year ago, and still held hopes of securing the project. Company's Deputy General Manager Zhang Jingping told Sri Lankan journalists who visited Jinan that his company sought to modernize five railway stations including the Colombo Fort Railway Station situated along the rail track. He said his company would also bid for the construction of the northern expressway. Meanwhile, another Chinese company has invested in the ongoing extension of the Southern railway line up to Beliatta.

Facing Western allegations of serious human right violations, China was also one of the few countries to defend Sri Lanka's human rights record under Rajapakse, who angered Western nations for refusing to cooperate with an international probe into allegations of war crimes on the island.

In contrast, the new government has won support from the West for its attempts at reconciliation between ethnic minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese, as well as moves to ensure accountability for crimes committed during the separatist war. With Western backing and support from Delhi, the government has secured more time to address allegations that troops under Rajapakse's command killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians while defeating Tamil rebels in the finale of the war that ended in 2009.

Not only Sri Lanka, but even India is also trying to patch up with Asia’s super power China for various economic security and political reasons. Meanwhile, senior Indian and Chinese officials are meeting in Delhi for talks aimed at resolving a contentious border dispute, the first discussions since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. China's special representative Yang Jiechi is in Delhi for talks with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. The talks are seeking to improve ties before Modi visits Beijing in May.

The neighbors were involved in a bitter two-week stand-off near their de facto border in September 2014. The two countries share an ill-defined 4,057km (2,520 miles) border and fought a brief war in 1962. Tensions flare up from time to time and numerous rounds of border talks have been unsuccessful so far. The latest meeting in Delhi is the 18th round of boundary talks.

Since taking over as prime minister last summer, Modi has spoken of his desire for better relations with China and called for an early settlement of the border dispute. In September during his visit to India, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he was committed to working with India to maintain "peace and tranquility".

China is already one of India's top trading partners: the two sides have agreed a new $100bn (£65bn) bilateral trade target for 2015, up from over $66bn in 2012. "The volume of trade keeps growing upward;. Besides boosting trade and business ties, China seeks closer relations with India for other reasons. If Sino-Indian ties worsen, India could well be firmly drawn towards the US, a possibility that worries Beijing considerably

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka and other Indian Ocean nations in March in a bid to counter that influence, and reassert Delhi's traditional role in the region.

- Asian Tribune -

Sri Lanka President Maithripala Srisena
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