Sri Lanka eyes longer talks on free trade deal


STALLED PLANS: China will invest $1
billion in the construction of three
60-storey buildings at a mega-project
near Sri Lanka’s main port
STALLED PLANS: China will invest $1 billion in the construction of three 60-storey buildings at a mega-project near Sri Lanka’s main port

COLOMBO WANTS TIME FOR CONSENSUS OVER CHINA INVESTMENT PLANS

SRI LANKA wants a longer-time peri­od to negotiate a free trade agreement with China as it is concerned about the economic impact of a rushed deal on their small country, the Sri Lankan ambassador said last Sunday (4).  

There has been rising concern in the south Asian nation about Chinese investment, a key part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to create a mod­ern-day Silk Road across Asia.  

Hundreds of Sri Lankans clashed with police at the opening last year of a Chinese-invested industrial zone in the south, saying they would not be moved from their land. It was the first time that opposition to Chinese investments in Sri Lanka had turned violent.  

Speaking on the sidelines of an inde­pendence day reception at the Sri Lankan embassy in Beijing, ambassador Karuna­sena Kodituwakku said a free trade agree­ment with China could not be rushed.  

“We’d like to have the process a little longer. China would like to have it faster,” Kodituwakku said. “Because Sri Lanka being a small economy, we have to get a consensus from stakeholders. Therefore, the delay is due to the time period. But eventually we will sign the agreement.”  

Sri Lanka last month signed a free trade agreement with Singapore, but Singapore’s economy is not as com­plex as China’s, Kodituwakku said.  

“Chinese imports are very impor­tant to Sri Lanka, but opening up the whole thing in a short time may make some problems for local companies. Therefore we have to balance it.”  

Sri Lanka has also been trying to get investment for a little utilised airport on its southern tip, in Mattala, built at a cost of $253 million by China, which also provided $230m of funding. “No doubt it was a white elephant. It is still a white elephant,” Kodituwakku said.  

India had been in advanced talks with Sri Lanka to operate the airport, but the ambassador said no deal had been reached. “We have to turn it into a viable economic venture. In fact we gave the option to Chinese companies.  

“I know Chinese companies have shown an interest, but according to our studies they were not having a viable economic plan and that’s why they had to give the option to India,” he said. “The Indian offer had been there, but even that has not been finalised.”  

“Anyone who want to come and turn the Mattala airport into a viable economic venture will be welcome. But unfortunately no one has taken over.” (Reuters)