New Sri Lankan PM must strike a balance in ties with Japan and China

Signaling a significant shift in the country’s foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s new government is slowly but steadily renewing its ties –  deteriorated over the years under the rule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – with countries such as the United States, India and Japan.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe addressing the Japanese Parliament

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe addressing the Japanese Parliament

Rajapaksa relied heavily on China for infrastructure aid during his decade-long rule while sidelining most other countries.

However, after assuming office, both the new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena have been busy mending fences with them by moving away from a pro-China policy to a non-partisan one.

Wickremesinghe’s recent visit to Japan gave a boost to bilateral relations between the two countries with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreeing to provide aid to Sri Lanka to develop infrastructure and strengthen its maritime security.

Wickremesinghe’s four-day visit to Tokyo, which ended on October 7 2015, resulted in Sri Lanka receiving a total of US$ 377 million in aid for infrastructure development across the country and inking an agreement to upgrade an airport.

Besides seeking Japan’s help for infrastructure development, Wickremesinghe invited the leaders to play a more significant role in national reconciliation and peace building in Sri Lanka.

Addressing the Japanese Parliament Diet, he said Sri Lanka wanted Tokyo to take the lead in the economic transformation of the island nation.

“The Government is planning to carry out the next generation of economic reforms to make Sri Lanka a highly competitive economy – we are aiming to be the most competitive in South Asia – on par with South East Asia,” he said.

In the past, only Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barak Obama were invited to address the Diet.

Wickremesinghe, in his speech, assured Japan that his government will create a more favorable investment climate by ensuring transparency and good governance to attract further investment from Japanese companies.

“Once again, we are seeking Japanese assistance to summon a meeting of donors to assist in the reconstruction and in revitalizing the socio-economy of the conflict-affected areas,” he said.

He said his government will remove barriers to direct foreign investments including the bottleneck and delays to doing business to ensure an investor-friendly platform.

Amid China’s growing assertiveness at sea, Wickremesinghe sought Japan’s help in strengthening the maritime security of Sri Lanka as well as that of the South Asian region.

Abe assured him that his country would help in this by providing patrol ships.

Over the past few years, China had taken up Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development, kicking off some mega projects with the blessings of former president Rajapaksa.

Almost 70% of the infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka in the past six years had been funded by China and built by its contractors. When Sirisena took office, Rajapaksa had signed over US$ 5.3 billion worth deals with China.

However, since winning the Parliamentary election, Wickremesinghe has not shown any special interest towards China.

The US$ 1.4 billion Colombo Port City project, which is the largest foreign-funded investment in Sri Lanka to date, has been suspended over environment concerns.

The new administration is awaiting a key environment report after it was found that a complete environmental assessment was not carried out in the original report.

Work on the project officially kicked off on September 17 2014 under the patronage of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Rajapaksa.

Meanwhile, in a move seen as a fresh attempt to woo Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, China sent its Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin to officially congratulate Wickremesinghe and invite him to China.

During his visit, Zhenmin also met with Sirisena on October 8.

Later, addressing a press conference in Colombo, Zhenmin warned that further delay or suspension of the port project will send a negative message to foreign investors about Sri Lanka.

“The Sri Lankan side has already signed the contract. They have to do the needful to fulfill investor interests. Delaying the project further is an adverse sign,” Zhenmin warned.

The next few months will prove crucial on how the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration strikes a balance between Japan and China, important aid providers who have helped enhance Sri Lanka’s infrastructure landscape.

Munza Mushtaq is a senior journalist based in Sri Lanka, and former news editor of The Nation and The Sunday Leader newspapers.

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