As President Maitripala Sirisena remarked to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping that no problem lay with the Chinese side in the execution of the Colombo Port City project and it was suspended as a temporary measure to sort out some issues, he tried to address a key concern that marred Sino-Lanka relations, maybe for the first time since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1957.
The Port City, an offshore development on a landmass to be reclaimed from the sea abutting the Colombo port, is a US $ 1.5 billion Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from China. It is the largest FDI project executed last year after a function attended by President Xi during his state visit to Sri Lanka last year.
The government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa initiated this project, and it drew flak from the then Opposition for what it called ‘over reliance on China’ for financial assistance.
After President Sirisena took office in January, and formed a government led by the United National Party (UNP), the Port City project became a hot topic, and there was increased chatter on the political corridor about the pros and cons of the project, and the main point of its critiques was its environmental consequences. Yet, a detailed and academic study in this regard has not yet been placed before the country.
The government suspended the project in the meantime to review it on the basis that the due procedure has not been followed by the previous government in the launch of it.
China Communication Construction Ltd which is a subsidiary of the China Harbour Engineering Corporation and the government of Sri Lanka are the partners of this commercial operation.
"It is reported widely that the President allayed Chinese concerns by saying the suspension was temporary, and the matter could be sorted out shortly. Also, he stressed that no problem lay with China in the launch of this project"
Despite it being a commercial operation, the suspension has become a matter of concern both for the Chinese government and the investor alike. And, it was featured prominently during bilateral discussions between President Sirisena and President Xi in Beijing a few days ago.
President Sirisena embarked on his state visit to China, actually at a critical point of diplomatic relations between the two countries. It was his second state visit undertaken after becoming the President. First, he went to India.
During the visit, he had to take measures to cement the relations between the two sides, after a hiccup by the suspension of the Port City project. It is reported widely that the President allayed Chinese concerns by saying the suspension was temporary, and the matter could be sorted out shortly. Also, he stressed that no problem lay with China in the launch of this project, and the previous government only had committed some procedural flaws in the process.
China remained the largest investor in infrastructure development of Sri Lanka over the past several years, and especially the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa relied heavily on that country both for financial assistance to build economy and diplomatic cooperation to ward off international pressure over allegations of human rights violations during the latter part of the war in particular.
Though the Port City is a commercial project involving a Chinese company, it is much in the limelight of relationship between the two countries. So to speak, the Chinese government representatives repeatedly remarked officially that the government of Sri Lanka and the Chinese investor should follow the law and act responsibly in taking decisions on the future of the project.
The President’s visit was preceded by a media delegation visiting China for interaction with a wider cross section of Chinese bureaucracy on the entire gamut of bilateral relations.
There were wide ranging discussions with government officials, company representatives, bank officials and investors on their present perception about the latest political developments in Sri Lanka after the change of government at the January 8th presidential election, and the way forward for Sino-Lanka relations under a new world order marked by increased international trade.
During these interactive sessions with the Sri Lankan press, representing both the electronic and print media, it became clear that China, despite its concern over the suspension of the Port City project, still looked forward to strengthen and deepen its cooperation with Sri Lanka under whatever party was calling the shots. China elevated its relationship with Sri Lanka to ‘Strategic Partnership Cooperation’ during the term of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Now, China intends to build on this cooperation further under the new rule in the country.
The Chinese side consistently repeated that it attached ‘high importance’ its relationship with Sri Lanka. Its intention for the expansion of economic cooperation was emphasized.
All in all, it is apparent that there is still time and space for strengthening Sino-Lanka relations despite the concern surrounding the suspension of the Port City project. During such meetings, it emerged clear that Sri Lanka’s strategic location was of utmost importance to China, particularly in terms of maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean.
On the economic front, China has unveiled its concept called ‘21st century maritime silk route or one belt, one road’. It is a project meant for the development of trade links between China and the rest of the world in the new global climate. The ancient maritime silk route was the artery used for shipping trade of cotton and spices, but the 21st century silk route is meant to replace such traditional items with a wide variety of products covering electronic products, toys, fossil fuel and apparels. Sri Lanka is located strategically along this trade belt, and the country stands the chance of becoming a trading hub if international developments are assessed and proper policies adopted for the overall benefit in trade with countries around the globe.
As part of its exercise for the expansion of trade with the countries in South Asia, Chinese officials from the Ministry of Commerce highlighted the need for acceleration of work on the finalisation of Sino –Lanka Free Trade Agreement. Already, two rounds of negotiations have been conducted, and China is keen to have the third round at a date as early as possible.
The phase used by them in this respect was ‘sooner the better’. As if to convince the importance of such a trade pact, Chinese officials said the countries with smaller economies than Sri Lanka’s had signed similar trade agreements with China. Costa Rica is one such country having signed a trade agreement with China.
It also transpired during these meetings that both sides have reservations about the reduction or waiving of tariff rates on their respective competitive products. Yet, China says Sri Lanka’s black tea is very popular among Chinese people, and therefore such exports could be increased exponentially if the FTA were concluded as early as possible.
Finally, Chinese special envoy Liu Jianchao who highlighted the importance of strengthening bilateral relations, rang the alarm bell that there were ‘certain voices’ attempting to sour relationship between China and Sri Lanka.
“I read and heard in the media about some voices against China –Sri Lanka relationship. Our two countries are traditional, time tested and all-weather friends. It is important to foster it further,” Mr. Jianchao said at a meeting with the Sri Lankan press.
Uncertainty over 19th Amendment
Three fourths of the 100-day period has been concluded. But, the government has been unable to enact constitutional reforms despite it being the foremost pledge given to people during the campaign period of the presidential election.
Now the government has taken some initiatives by presenting in Parliament the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for making the executive presidency more answerable and accountable to the Legislature and the judiciary. But, the government has not been able to garner the support of even its alliance partners for this project, as Jathika Hela Urumaya(JHU) is opposed to it tooth and nail.
Already, the JHU, a key ally of the government, has petitioned the Supreme Court against the Bill. Numerous other petitions have been filed by other parties and political groups in the opposition as well. The Bill is listed to be taken up for debate on April 9 and 10 in Parliament, but it is now uncertain whether the required two-thirds majority could be mustered to enact this legislation at the end of the debate during the next parliamentary week.
Also, there is concern even within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) about the lack of clarity on some of the provisions of the new legislation aimed at amending the Constitution.
Though SLFP senior MPs such as John Seneviratne speak in favour of the Bill, there are others voicing against the lack of clarity in the Bill.
Also, it is now learnt that the draft presented in Parliament in the form of a Bill is not the final document as the government is planning to incorporate a few more clauses during the third reading of the Bill during the debate.
Though the SLFP is now a part of the government, the party is unlikely to receive the endorsement of all its MPs for this piece of legislation. Likewise, the SLFP is rigid in its stand that both electoral reforms and constitutional amendments should be enacted together as part of the same exercise. But, the government has decided to act separately in this respect, and it is not to the liking of the SLFP.
TNA backs 19th Amendment
However, it is now apparent that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is in support of the new Bill as its MP M.A.Sumanthiran filed an intervening petition in the Supreme Court. Mr. Sumanthiran was to appear in person for the case on Wednesday.
Dilemma over Opposition Leader post
After the SLFP accepted portfolios in the government on the request by President Maitripala Sirisena, a question has arisen within the political quarters whether the party is eligible to hold the Opposition Leader post of Parliament.
The President decided to entertain MPs of his SLFP in his Cabinet as, he thought, it would facilitate better the execution of the 100-day programme. Accordingly, 26 MPs accepted ministerial posts, as Cabinet Ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers in the government.
But, it has widened rifts within the party already embroiled in crisis over its way forward. Against this backdrop, a move was undertaken by several parties aligned with SLFP to replace present opposition leader Nimal Siripala de Silva with Mahajana Eksath Peramuna(MEP) leader Dinesh Gunawardane.
Democratic Left Front of MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara and National Freedom Front of MP Wimal Weerawansa are in the forefront of this campaign. They have received a shot in the arm when a section of the SLFP also joined their bandwagon making the similar request. Already, it is learnt that 58 signatures have been collected for a letter to be handed over Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa asking such replacement.
The SLFP MPs, supportive of this exercise, include the likes of former Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage .
Mr. Aluthgamage, along with others such as former Minister Kumara Welgama, has also joined the political movement to bring back former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP-led alliance at the next election.
SLFP seniors unwilling to nominate MR as PM candidate
According to sources close to the present SLFP leadership, the party seniors are willing to give nomination for Mr. Rajapaksa to contest the next election on the party ticket. Yet, they are not ready to nominate him as the candidate for the premiership. However, the rank and file of the party is overwhelmingly in support of the nomination of Mr. Rajapaksa as the candidate for the prime minister post. A tough task lies ahead for the SLFP in taking a decision in this regard.
CBK unhappy over SB, Pavithra in Cabinet
Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga played a role in the selection of SLFP members for ministerial perks in the government. In certain cases, she insisted that some members should take up positions. However, she is reportedly not happy with the inclusion of MP S.B. Dissanayake and Pavithra Wanniarachchi in the Cabinet. Also, she has toughened her position that Mr. Rajapaksa should not be accommodated in any of the SLFP-led alliances in future.