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Sri Lanka - China Relations

During his two terms as president, Mahinda brought Sri Lanka closer to China at the expense of relations with neighboring India. Sri Lanka is facing a debt crisis and is looking for help from its largest foreign lender - Beijing. The Rajapaksa government needs to come up with $4bn a year until 2024 to meet international debt repayments. According to reports, its foreign currency reserves right now stand at around $6.5bn. At the same time, Sri Lanka is recalibrating its delicate foreign relations with push and pulls from different directions.

Since coming to power, Gotabaya has given indications that he wants to place his country in the Chinese camp. His government has said that it is reviewing a multi-million dollar deal with India in order to build a seaport terminal. This is part of what analysts say is Colombo’s attempt to distance itself from being reliant on Quad nations - Australia, India, Japan and the United States - a group that is trying to contain Chinese influence in the region.

Sri Lanka's first prime minister, Don Stephen Senanayake, had committed the country to a "middle path" of nonalignment to avoid entanglement in superpower rivalries. But non-alignment has had its modulations in the decades since independence. UNP governments were generally friendlier to the West than those formed by the left-leaning SLFP. Sirimavo Bandaranaike deeply distrusted Washington's intentions and cultivated close and friendly relations with China in the early 1960s, a time when that country was vocally committed to the worldwide export of "wars of national liberation."

Sri Lanka’s geopolitical position has changed in recent years. The United States has developed closer ties with India while Sri Lanka moved towards China. While India has no apparent interestin stoking conflict in Sri Lanka, Indian officials are reportedly increasingly concerned about their strategic role in the Indian Ocean and China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka.

Chinese activities in Sri Lanka are largely economic, focusing billions of dollars on military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development. While these are loans that will need to be repaid and do not contribute much towards the local economy, they come with-out any political strings, a fact which makes them attractive to the Sri Lankan Goverment.

On Feb. 7, 1957, China and Sri Lanka established diplomatic relations. In 1986, then Chinese President Li Xiannian paid a visit to the South Asian island country.

On April 21-27, 1996, then Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga paid a state visit to China at the invitation of then Chinese President Jiang Zeming. The two sides signed two agreements to enhance economic cooperation.

On May 17-19, 1996, then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji paid a three-day official visit to Sri Lanka to further consolidate and develop friendship and cooperation between the two countries. The two sides agreed on further development of friendly and cooperative relations and signed an agreement on economic and technological cooperation.

On Aug. 9-13, 2003, then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe paid a five-day working visit to China. During the visit, the two governments vowed to boost economic and technological cooperation, avoid dual taxation and fight tax evasion. China also agreed to provide Sri Lanka with preferential loans.

On, April 8-9, 2005, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Sri Lanka. The two sides issued a joint communique committing themselves to developing an all-round cooperative partnership featuring sincere support and everlasting friendship.

On Aug. 30-Sept. 2, 2005, Kumaratunga paid a five-day state visit to China at the invitation of then Chinese President Hu Jintao. The two countries inked eight landmark agreements on cultural, economic, financial and tourism cooperation.

On Feb. 26-March 4, 2007, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited China on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of China-Sri Lanka diplomatic ties. In a joint press communique, China and Sri Lanka pledged to further enhance exchanges and cooperation, and lift the China-Sri Lanka all-round cooperative partnership to higher levels.

On May 27-30, 2013, Rajapaksa paid a four-day state visit to China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two sides agreed to upgrade their relations to a strategic cooperative partnership, and vowed to promote cooperation in such areas as trade, investment, tourism and defense.

On May 22, 2014, Xi met Rajapaksa in Shanghai on the sidelines of a summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia. During their meeting, Xi called for joint efforts to build the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and promote the China-Sri Lanka free trade talks. The Sri Lankan president vowed to facilitate maritime cooperation with China and invited Xi to visit his country.

The destruction of seven LTTE ships categorized by Navy Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda as floating arsenals, in four separate operations on the high seas during the year, delivered the enemy a knockout blow. According to the SLN, the ships which were between 45 to 75 meters in length, had the capacity to carry 1,000 to 1,500 tons of cargo each. The SLN believed that the seven ships sunk in 2007 and the vessel destroyed on 17 September 2006 off Kalmunai were loaded with several thousand tonnes of military cargo.

The meticulously carried out operations, revealed the hitherto clandestine link between the LTTE and Chinese arms suppliers. Recovery of arms, ammunition and equipment of Chinese origin by the SLN subsequent to confrontations with Sea Tigers, prompted Sri Lankan government to take it up with the People’s Republic. Although the UNP and JVP publicly defended China, inquiries revealed that the LTTE had received substantial stocks of Chinese ‘goods.’

Investigations revealed that shipments were certified with North Korean end user certificates, a charge denied by Pyongyang. But the recovery of a variety of armaments including specialised equipment, proved the Chinese connection beyond doubt. The LTTE had bought large stocks of armaments from China after the Norwegian-arranged Ceasefire Agreement came into operation in February 2002, but Sri Lanka is uncertain as to when the first transaction was made.

Chinese activity in the region appeared to be seeking friends like Sri Lanka to secure its sea lines of communication from the Straits of Hormuz and the western reaches of the Indian Ocean region to the Strait of Malacca to facilitate trade and secure China’s energy imports.

For instance, in 2007, China reached a billion dollar deal with Sri Lanka to develop a deepwater port in the south at the sleepy fishing village of Hambantota. In 2008, China gave Sri Lanka nearly $1 billion in economic assistance. In 2009, China was granted an exclusive investment zone in Mirigama, 34 miles from Colombo’s port.

China is the primary provider of arms to the Sri Lankan military. Its economic ties with China have helped insulate Sri Lanka from international pressure to spare civilian lives in the conflict with the Tamil Tigers, leading not only to the Sri Lankan military’s decisive victory over the insurgents but also to the possible commission of crimes of war against innocent Tamil civilians.

Even for those that dismiss China’s "string of pearls" strategy as overblown, there is concern about growing Chinese influence on the Sri Lankan Goverment. During the closing stages of the separatist war, for example, China blocked Western-led efforts to impose a truce through the United Nations Security Council and continued supplying arms to the Sri Lankan Goverment.

The president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was pro-Chinese. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Sri Lanka on 13 March 2015 reflected a bounce back in bilateral relations, as India sought to mitigate China's growing influence at New Delhi's doorstep. Sri Lanka was the last stop on Modi's trip after visits to Indian Ocean island nations Seychelles and Mauritius. It came on the heels of three decades of mostly rocky relations largely due to the Tamil ethnic separatist conflict in Sri Lanka.

Ties fell further to their lowest levels in the final years of the nine-year administration of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose pro-Chinese policies threatened India's say in the region. Rajapaksa's election defeat in January 2015 at the hands of Maithripala Sirisena reversed that trend, especially when Sirisena picked India for his first official visit. Sri Lanka's government reviewed China-funded infrastructure development and has suspended the $1.5 billion Colombo Port City project, citing environmental issues and alleged corruption.

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Page last modified: 17-08-2020 14:19:20 ZULU