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Sri Lanka to advance relationship with China despite concerns – Dr. Palitha Kohona

23 March 2021 12:05 am - 3     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A A A

  • Moves to sign free trade deal
  • China and Sri Lanka consider travel bubble
  • Talks of Chinese vaccines successful 
  • Uyghur issue seen as part of Western agenda 
  • China has been a good friend of Sri Lanka for a long time, but you never take anything for granted
  • I’m glad that the Chinese stepped in when the others turned their faces away
  • It’s just that the opportunities were there and the Chinese companies came and accepted those opportunities

 


China is termed as Sri Lanka’s closest and most dependable friend. However, the relationship between the two has resulted in the West and India raising concerns. China has been accused of having ulterior motives in its attempt to further cement its relationship with Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China, Dr. Palitha Kohona, speaking to Daily Mirror, defended Sri Lanka’s relationship with China, and also insisted that he has not seen or heard of there being evidence to back rights abuses in China.


Excerpts of the interview:

 

  •  One of the reasons, in my view, why the Sri Lankan exporters are doing so badly in the Chinese market is due to the absence of a document or an agreement in the nature of an FTA.  Sri Lanka only exported about USD 250 million worth of goods to China while China exported goods worth USD 4 billion to Sri Lanka
  • 169 million Chinese travelled overseas in 2019 before COVID-19 dampened the enthusiasm for travel. We hope that a considerable number of Chinese travellers will consider Sri Lanka to be their definitional choice in the future
  • The Foreign Ministry, in fact rang me on a Sunday night to inform me that China will be gifting 300,000 doses to Sri Lanka. Subsequently they had added another 300,000. So we have conveyed all this to Colombo

 


Q You assumed duties as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China recently, at a time when relations between China and Sri Lanka have been on rocky ground following certain policy decisions taken by the former government. How has that relationship developed since you took office?


I would say that that relationship is now on a very good footing.  But we are not going to rest. We are going to make the relationship even stronger and warmer.  China has been a good friend of Sri Lanka for a long time, but you never take anything for granted. That’s a lesson I’ve learned a long time ago. So, we will continue to work on strengthening and consolidating, and advancing this relationship to a higher level.


Q Is there a specific area that Sri Lanka is focusing on, in its relationship with China?


First, my primary goal would be to consolidate and advance this relationship. And that would be at a political level.  Of course, very importantly and in parallel we will improve our bilateral economic relationship, enhance our exports to China, with China being the most lucrative consumer market in the world. We would also encourage inward investments from Chinese companies as China is one of the major investment capitals in the world. 
We would also do our best to encourage more Chinese travellers to visit Sri Lanka. China is the biggest source of tourism in the world today. 169 million Chinese travelled overseas in 2019 before COVID-19 dampened the enthusiasm for travel. We hope that a considerable number of Chinese travellers will consider Sri Lanka to be their definitional choice in the future and we will certainly make every effort to leave no stone unturned and keep doors open as we approach this goal. 


In almost every aspect China is the biggest and most lucrative market.  


QIs there a move to consider a travel bubble between China and Sri Lanka?


Both sides are talking about it. As you know China has been phenomenally successful in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. Hardly a trace of it is left in China. Its done a wonderful job in controlling this terrible infection. And Sri Lanka hasn’t done too badly. So there is every possibility of a bubble being arranged by the two countries on a mutual basis and we are talking about it.


QI know you had also been in talks with China over the COVID vaccine.  Your comments?


We have spoken to the major two Chinese vaccine producers, Sinopharm and Sinovac. Both have been very receptive to our request to make the Chinese vaccines available to Sri Lanka. We have spoken to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and have received a very positive response from them. We have also spoken to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. The Foreign Ministry, in fact rang me on a Sunday night to inform me that China will be gifting 300,000 doses to Sri Lanka. Subsequently they had added another 300,000. So we have conveyed all this to Colombo.    


QI believe China is also pushing for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Sri Lanka and wants some of the projects like the Hambantota investment zone and Colombo Port City expedited. Your comments?


Well, there are two issues here. One is related to the FTA. The FTA is on the table. We have been discussing the FTA for the past 7 years or more. The Chinese authorities would like us to expedite this because one of the reasons, in my view, why the Sri Lankan exporters are doing so badly in the Chinese market is due to the absence of a document or an agreement in the nature of an FTA.  Sri Lanka only exported about USD 250 million worth of goods to China while China exported goods worth USD 4 billion to Sri Lanka.


There are many obstacles that Sri Lankan exporters face when accessing the Chinese market.  Questions relating to quality, standards, meeting Chinese requirements, preferences, etc. We need to rev-up the level of our exports to the Chinese market. Other countries are doing exceptionally well in the Chinese market. Australia, for example, exports close to USD 237 billion worth pf goods to China. So Sri Lanka needs to do a little bit more and one of the tools we can use for this purpose, in my view, is the conclusion of an FTA. 


An FTA creates concerns in the minds of many people, and justifiably so. An FTA depends on how you negotiate it. We need to engage the best minds in these negotiations, so that Sri Lanka will also benefit from it. There are other FTAs we have signed, But, most of them come under criticism as Sri Lankan interests have not been adequately protected.


The other issue that you raised is with regards to Hambantota and the Colombo Port City. Both were built with Chinese funding. At present we need to attract investors to make use of the facilities that Hambantota provides as well as the Colombo Port City provides. For this, we have said both areas are open to anyone from around the world, not only the Chinese. Anyone from the US, Europe, India or Japan can come and make use of these facilities. My job, of course is to encourage Chinese companies to try and invest in these areas. We need those investments. For two reasons. One is because an FDI is important to Sri Lanka and second an FDI will stimulate our economy, our employment prospects for our people and the export potential of this country. 


QAre you aware that some countries are concerned about China’s trade dealings with Sri Lanka? They see it as one sided, favouring only China while others question the lack of transparency regarding some of these deals. How would you respond to those concerns?


I think the opportunities given to Chinese companies are essentially to respond to Sri Lanka’s needs. When Sri Lanka needs a power plant to be built and we need the funding, it’s invariably a Chinese company that comes with the funding and the necessary structure for disposing the funding. I don’t think the present government has at any stage or any other government simply allocated opportunities for Chinese companies alone. If there was competition and others were entering the fray, I don’t think there was a deliberate effort to exclude companies from any other country. It’s just that the opportunities were there and the Chinese companies came and accepted those opportunities.


Then on the access to the Chinese market, China has consistently said that the Chinese market is more liberalised than any other market and it is open to everybody. The opportunities are there in China. We need to make use of the opportunities. You can’t blame the Chinese for not consuming Sri Lankan products. We need to understand the quality that they require, their customs regulations, etc.


QDo you feel the pressure from the West is hampering Sri Lanka’s attempts to gain more from its relationship with China?


Obviously, there is pressure. Not only on Sri Lanka, but on many other countries. There is an effort to discourage developing countries from getting too close to China. But then our future is ours. We need to decide what is good for us. We need to make up our own minds on who we should rely on to make our future better. There is no use of worrying about pressure when the most important pressure that Sri Lanka needs to respond to is the pressure from our people for a better life, better standard of living and a better future for their children. 


QChina is facing allegation regarding abusing human rights, especially that of the Uyghurs. You are on the ground there in China. Have you seen or heard of these abuses taking place?


I don’t want to get involved in a debate that I am not very familiar with. But I have been talking to my colleagues and there doesn’t seem to be much concern among those I have spoken to. This includes some European diplomats and a number of Central Asian diplomats. 


Like in Sri Lanka, there are some countries trying to raise issues where there are no issues. Create confusion where there is no confusion and embarrass Sri Lanka internationally. This is a political initiative.  This is part of a political agenda. I believe the same is with the so called Uyghur issue.


Q You were Foreign Secretary at one time.  How does Sri Lanka balance its relationship with China and the West when you have so many allegations and concerns being raised?


I think that is where diplomacy comes into play. Sri Lanka is not unique in this situation. There are other countries which are coming under pressure from different directions. It is for us to balance those pressures giving priority to our national interests. At the end of the day, we as a country must survive, prosper and advance. The West will have its own priorities. You know that for 300-400 years some Western countries tried to dominate Sri Lanka. Britain actually did dominate the whole island for 133 years. 


QBut isn’t it a matter of concern that with China having such a hold on us it might just come to a situation where China might rule over us like Britain did?


That’s a funny argument. We need the investments. We need to advance the country. We need to prosper. We need to make our future secure. We have asked for investments from the West. We have asked for investments from other countries. And when they don’t turn up and the Chinese turn up, why are we criticising that? I’m glad that the Chinese stepped in when the others turned their faces away. 


QSo are we expecting more major Chinese funded projects in Sri Lanka in future?


We are working on a number of projects. I don’t think we can talk about them at this stage. We are working on a range of projects. But having said that, we have tried and we continue to try to encourage big companies from the West, from Europe and India to invest in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka offers unparallel opportunities to investors.

 

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  • hoodwinker Wednesday, 24 March 2021 05:11 PM

    By the time all ends well' sri lanka will be called Sino-Lanka

    Punchi Banda Thursday, 25 March 2021 07:36 AM

    In wechat Chinese already are saying that they own Pakistan and Lanka. They also write they own Australia- this may be incorrect

    Ranjith Friday, 26 March 2021 03:52 AM

    With the signing of the currency swap with China Sri Lanka has already fallen deep into the Chinese trap and will end up as a Chinese colony sooner than expected. The Government has no money to run the country and is now almost totally dependent on Chinese loans.


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