Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who is currently on a visit to Japan, in an obvious reference to China, assured that ‘foreign forces’ will not be allowed to use Sri Lankan ports in a way that will hinder the interests of other countries. Wickremesinghe assured Japan of Sri Lanka’s commitment to regional peace and stability and reiterated that the Sri Lankan Navy would be responsible for security at all Lankan ports. His comments come amidst local and some international fears that the planned 99 year lease of the strategically located Southern Hambantota port to China would mean a virtual monopolizing of the harbor area by the Chinese for military related activities.
Delivering the keynote address at the business forum organized by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in Tokyo on Tuesday, Wickremesinghe welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,’ that looks at promoting economic connectivity in the Indo- Pacific ocean.
Wickremesinghe’s visit to Japan comes in the backdrop of Sri Lanka being mired in a controversial decision to transfer to equity a US$ 1.4 billion debt to the Chinese who had built the Hambantota port. The current Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime is struggling to negotiate with the hard bargaining Chinese who has postponed the signing of the port lease agreement after Sri Lanka attempted to maintain a semblance of control by strategizing a systematic reduction of the Chinese stakes of the port initially agreed at 80%. The visit of Wickremesinghe to Japan is important in this context as the island nation attempts to manoeuvre a checkmate of China by rekindling its friendship with Japan. Japan was the largest donor to Sri Lanka until 2007 and contributed heavily to Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development before it was usurped by China who cultivated a strong relationship with the then regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Netted in a catch 22 situation, Sri Lanka is doing its best in the present circumstances to juggle the interests of key global players such as India, China, Japan and the United States, attempting not to be seen as giving one particular country more control than the others.
“Sri Lanka will act with responsibility when it comes to ensuring security in the Indian Ocean region,” Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said adding that Japan has a wider role to play in the economics of the region at a time when the US is withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership. Analysts point out that this is the vocalizing of an actual fear that China is already stepping into the vacuum ahead of other competitors for the space. Wickremesinghe also told Japan that Sri Lanka was seeking Japanese assistance to develop the Trincomalee Port.
The Lankan Prime Minister met with Trade and Industry Minister of Japan, Hiroshige Seko at the Tokyo Imperial Hotel and discussed further means of promoting bilateral cooperation while Sri Lanka’s Special Projects Minister Sarath Amunugama invited Japanese entrepreneurs to invest in Sri Lanka and requested Japan to assist the Sri Lankan Government to construct a modern hospital in the country’s hill capital of Kandy.
Meanwhile, Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama referring to Sri Lankan exports to Japan, said that the annual exports to Japan was currently US$200 million, expressing the hope that this amount would be significantly increased in the near future.
Hailing Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s USD 110 billion contribution to the Asian Development Bank to build quality infrastructure in Asia, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister stressed the need for a “comprehensive plan of implementation.”
“We want Japan to use Sri Lanka as a hub for trade. We expect to deepen our existing FTA with India through the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA), expect to sign FTAs with Singapore and China. We also hope to talk to Japan, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries with regard to FTAs,” the Prime Minister said inviting Japanese companies for joint ventures as Sri Lanka plans to become a logistics hub, expanding Colombo Port to make it the largest in the Indian Ocean.