Following is the edited transcript of a CNBC interview with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, at the WEF India Conference held recently. Interviewed by CNBC Asia Pacific Anchor Martin Soong.
Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW): This is not the first time that the SAARC meeting has been postponed – sometimes because of terrorist strikes, sometimes because of natural disasters, sometimes for other major disagreements. But in this instance, cross-border terrorism has now been laid as the main item on the agenda, if not, intended to be so.
I would use the word gatecrash onto its way onto the agenda and you will have to deal with it. On early occasions, there was this aspect of terrorism that came up, then one part will not attend the meeting, then after that discussions, certain steps taken to reduce tension, the talks begin and then SAARC kept on, but in this instance, it looks as if it will not be possible to get the SAARC government moving unless you discuss the issue of cross-border terrorism.
Martin Soong (MS): There are fears in some quarters of India that Sri Lanka is leaning way too much towards China, opening the door, etc. I know you have been quoted several times saying look, relax, most of these projects are commercial in nature, they are not military, they are not strategic. Is that really true when you think about the String of Pearls and whether it is Hambantota or Colombo, we are talking about deep water ports here, which can very easily be used and converted for military purposes?
RW: Sri Lanka cannot be used for any deportmentary purposes. The Chinese have also decided on a strategy where they want to industrialize outside. It is sort of a, though they deny it, it is sort of a martial plan; it is an economic martial plan, the same thing that part of it comes back to China, part they will use it to send to Europe. But they are pushing into this area. I don’t know why I still keep talking with them and maybe I don’t know in the next few years. But it is a plan but remember the global population growth is going to take place around the Indian Ocean and Africa. China, Japan and all, certainly the growth will be less.
So here is the market, the potential market. What they were doing there is about a 25-year plan and at the end of it, if it works. So, it is not only down to Sri Lanka, they have the One Belt all the way into Europe ending up in Poland and Rotterdam. So, it is building up a big economic network and this is just one part of it. This suits us as far as we are concerned; told them no military ships. For our Navy we have a base in Hambantota and of course we will operate from there. So, we can look after that.
MS: So if you don’t mind, let me ask you a cheeky question because of the scale and intensity of Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka, including monetary investments. If China were to come to you while you are PM and say look Hambantota is fine, the commercial interest there is fine, but hey, let’s talk about – I’d like some access for our military, the Chinese Navy or some sort of logistical base there or a monitoring sort of facility there for the record. Would you turn them down flat?
RW: I would say you’re blue-water navy, learn to sail in the Pacific.
MS: So you would turn down them flat?
RW: Ah yes yes.