China has said it will take forward plans to boost maritime connectivity with Sri Lanka, where it is already building a major port project, with both countries this week also agreeing to deepen economic links and sign a landmark Free Trade Agreement (FTA) before the end of the year.

A push for closer economic ties was emphasised during this week’s four-day visit by Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris to Beijing.

Mr. Peiris said on Thursday a feasibility study for the FTA was “on the verge of completion.”

“It will be a landmark, historic achievement since the Rubber-Rice Pact in 1952,” he told the state-run Xinhua news agency.

The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister hailed China’s support, particularly following the end of the civil war in 2009, saying it was “among the nations contributing most to Sri Lanka’s economy” in terms of development assistance.

China is now the biggest provider of loans to Sri Lanka, overtaking countries such as India and Japan that had earlier been the largest source of financing for infrastructure projects.

Today Beijing is involved in projects ranging from roads and railways to the massive port project in Hambantota, with investments amounting to $4 billion according to state media reports.

Both sides also discussed building a “21st century maritime silk road,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters. This would involve boosting “maritime interconnectivity,” besides working together on disaster prevention and expanding people-to-people exchanges.The visit of Mr. Peiris this week had been somewhat overshadowed by next month’s United Nations Human Rights Council meeting, where the United States is expected to put forward a resolution criticising the country’s post-war right record.

The main objective of his trip to China was seen by many analysts here as aimed at reinforcing Chinese support to Sri Lanka ahead of the UNHRC meet.

China, which was among 14 countries elected to serve on the 47-member UNHRC in November for a three-year term, has been among the most vocal backers of the Sri Lankan government amid increasing international criticism of the post-war reconciliation process and the human rights situation.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi this week underlined that support, telling Mr. Peiris that China opposed “some countries’ interference,” without directly naming the U.S., “in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka under the pretext of human rights issues.”