Sri Lanka promises to end deadlock over mega Chinese project
The Chinese special envoy to Sri Lanka on Friday said the new leadership in Colombo has promised to end the stalemate over the stalled Colombo Port City project that has become a bone of contention between the two countries.
“Sri Lankan leaders have expressed commitment to moving forward the project. I am confident Colombo Port City will be completed in three to five years,” said Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin at the end of a two-day visit to Sri Lanka to meet its top leaders.
Colombo Port City, a reclamation real estate project the size of Monaco, is among the several big-ticket Chinese-backed infrastructure ventures put on hold since China-friendly Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential election in January.
Inaugurated by President Xi Jinping in September and financed by state-controlled and Hong Kong-listed China Communications Construction Co (CCCC), the Chinese see the project as an indicator of the new Maithripala Sirisena government’s commitment to continue strong bilateral ties.
The Sirisena administration has made it clear that it will not follow the last government’s China-centric policies and avoid the over-dependence on Chinese investments, which it associates with Rajapaksa’s graft-tainted rule. But it also realises the importance of Chinese investments and is trying to reconcile poll-time rhetoric with economic realities.
In more signs that efforts are on to put Colombo Port City back on track, cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne on Thursday said the cabinet had agreed to appoint a fresh committee to address the issues surrounding the project so that it can continue.
“Chinese companies have been losing heavily because of the delay,” said Liu. As the single-biggest foreign direct investment into Sri Lanka ever, the project is important to maintain foreign investors’ confidence, he said.
Asked if China was considering fresh investments in the strategically important Indian Ocean country, he said the two sides were in talks about “increasing development cooperation”, but pointedly emphasised that “old projects have to be completed first before turning to new ones”.
Liu is the first Chinese special envoy for Sri Lanka since the parliamentary elections in August reinstated a national unity government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
His trip, coinciding with Wickremesinghe’s return from a visit to Japan, is also a bid by China to familiarise itself with the new prime minister. With 106 seats in the 225-member legislature, Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) is the dominant partner in a coalition with small parties and a section of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is split between the Rajapaksa and the Sirisena camps.
Liu announced that Wickremesinghe had accepted the invitation to visit China and the two sides had agreed to increase high-level contacts.
The US sent two assistant secretaries of state just days after the August elections. Wickremesinghe’s just-concluded Japan trip also follows a visit to India, his first foreign trip on taking the post.