China-Sri Lanka relations
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The Beira Lake is seen in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: Reuters

China to give US$989 million loan to Sri Lanka for major new motorway project

  • Export-Import Bank of China has agreed to provide the money, the biggest loan approved by the bank for Sri Lanka

China has agreed to provide a loan of US$989 million to Sri Lanka to build an motorway that will connect the island nation’s tea-growing central region to a China-run seaport on the southern coast, the island’s finance ministry said Friday.

The Export-Import Bank of China has agreed to provide a loan covering 85 per cent of the contract price for Central Expressway Project – Section 1, whose total cost is US$1.16 billion. The loan is the single largest loan approved by the bank for Sri Lanka, according to a statement from the finance ministry.

The loan agreement was signed on Friday by finance ministry Secretary R H S Samaratunga and Cheng Xueyuan, China’s ambassador in Sri Lanka on behalf of the Export-Import Bank, at the Ministry of Finance in the capital Colombo.

The motorway will create “an uninterrupted connectivity” among Hambantota district towns with the China-run port, an airport near Colombo, and Kandy in the central region, where the famed Ceylon tea grows.

The statement said the proposed highway will improve the inter-regional connectivity and efficiency of the entire motorway network and added that it will link “several provinces and economically important ports, airports and commercial cities.”

The loan comes as Sri Lanka struggles to repay US$5.9 billion in foreign loans this year, of which 40 per cent must be paid by the end of this month. The country used its reserves to repay a US$1 billion sovereign bond loan in January. 

Much of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt is from China, with loans obtained to build motorways and other infrastructure projects, including some that have become white elephants, deepening the country’s debt burden.

A Chinese construction worker stands on land that was reclaimed from the Indian Ocean for the Colombo Port City project, initiated as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. Photo: AP Photo

Sri Lanka leased the Chinese-built port in Hambantota, which is near the world’s busiest east-west shipping route, to a Chinese firm in 2017 for 99 years in a bid to recover from the heavy burden of repaying a loan obtained the country received to build the facility.


The port is part of Beijing’s so-called string-of-pearls plan for a line of ports stretching from Chinese waters to the Persian Gulf.

China’s influence in Sri Lanka makes neighbouring India anxious because it considers the Indian Ocean region to be its strategic backyard. The Sri Lankan government has been trying to balance its relationship with the Asian giants.

Sri Lankan officials have reiterated that the port’s security will be handled by the government in an attempt to allay fears that the port could be used by China as a military hub.

China says about 150 countries have signed Belt and Road related agreements since the program’s launch more than five years ago. A major conference is planned next month in Beijing, marking further expansion of the initiative.

Beijing has marketed the initiative as a way to give some of the world’s neediest countries a leg up, helping them gain access to more trade and investment. But it also helps Chinese companies tap new markets for their products while helping Beijing amass greater global influence.


Some governments, including the United States, Japan and India, worry that Beijing is trying to build a China-centred sphere of influence that would undermine their own sway, pulling developing nations into so-called “debt traps” that would give China ever-more control over their territories and economies.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Chinese bank to fund Sri Lankan motorway