Support in international fora in focus as Rajapaksa leaves for Beijing

To mobilise support against increasing international pressure Concerns about Chinese infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka

To mobilise support against increasing international pressure Concerns about Chinese infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka  

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Monday left for China on his second visit to the country in less than a year, against the backdrop of deepening diplomatic and economic ties and concerns about Chinese infrastructure projects in the island nation.

Mr. Rajapaksa will attend the opening of the 2011 Universiade, or university games, in the southern port city of Shenzhen, and is also scheduled to hold talks with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing.

Mr. Rajapaksa's visit comes as Sri Lanka continues to mobilise support against increasing international pressure, following a United Nations report that accused the government of war crimes. China is expected to reiterate its strong backing to Mr. Rajapaksa's government.

Mr. Rajapaksa told China's official Xinhua news agency in an interview on Monday that Sri Lanka “appreciate[d] very much the understanding shown by China on the pressures of the post-conflict period, and the support extended to heal the wounds of war.”

He said relations between China and Sri Lanka were, at present, “at the highest levels of friendship and understanding.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in May said China's position was that national reconciliation was an issue for the Sri Lankan government and people to handle, hinting that China would likely back Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. Chinese President Hu Jintao also told his Sri Lankan counterpart in talks in June, on the sidelines of the International Economic Forum meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, that China was opposed to external intervention in Sri Lanka's domestic affairs. The invitation to visit China was extended at this meet, said the Sri Lankan President's spokesman, Bandula Jayasekara.

“As a principle, China has always advocated that other countries, and western countries in particular, should not interfere in internal affairs of countries like Sri Lanka,” Rong Ying, vice-president of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), a think-tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry, told The Hindu .

“The Sri Lankan government has been doing very well on promoting post-war political reconciliation and for pushing economic development,” he said. “At this particular moment, China believes Sri Lanka needs more support and more understanding. Nobody, including western countries, want to see a return to a situation where war is going on and people are suffering.”

The two countries will also discuss deals for infrastructure projects.

China last year emerged as the country's biggest aid donor, surpassing the Asian Development Bank and Japan, with $1.2 billion in aid.

But many concerns are being raised about Chinese projects in Sri Lanka. The first concern is on the quality of work and the second, the high cost of credit. Detailing issues in one landmark project, the Hambantota Port, Srilanka's opposition UNP MP Harsha De Silva said the contract with China's EXIM Bank was grossly unfair.

“We should be paying 1.3 per cent on credit line instead we are being charged 6.3 per cent, he said. The government has also finally accepted that there existed a rock formation at the mouth of the harbour, which had to be blasted away ahead of very large carriers docking at the port.

Many opposition MPs have questioned how the rock went unnoticed when the port was being built. The opposition had also raised questions about the functioning of a Chinese-built thermal power plant, two weeks after it went on steam. It is unclear if the Sri Lankan side will raise any of these issues. Chinese firms are also laying railroads, developing the second phase of the Colombo port and a host of highways in the country.

Mr. Rajapaksa told Xinhua that Sri Lanka looked forward to increasing investment from China, with the country taking steps “to improve the investment environment with tax rebates and having no restrictions on the remittance of profits from investment.”

He said his visit would enable him “to learn more of the progress and the management styles that have contributed to the progress of China, and also see how we could learn from the experiences of China.” “China's growth rate is setting a benchmark for developing countries such as Sri Lanka,” he said.

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