Sri Lanka will â€œredoubleâ€ efforts to strike a free trade deal with China and conclude and expanded trade pact with India as part of the island nationâ€™s strategy of becoming an Indian Ocean hub for investors and multinationals, the countryâ€™s top diplomat says.
Colombo signed a comprehensive free trade deal with Singapore in January and now has the bandwidth to finalise deals with Sri Lankaâ€™s two largest trading partners â€œas quickly as possible,â€ said foreign secretary Prasad Kariyawasam.
â€œSince we have now done the trade deal with Singapore, we can redouble our efforts to finalise an expanded trade deal with India and China,â€ said Kariyawasam, the countryâ€™s former ambassador to the US and top envoy to India.
In recent years, Sri Lanka â€“ which emerged from a three-decade civil war in 2009 â€“ has been known for taking Chinese loans to fund vast infrastructure projects, including ports and motorways.
But Kariyawasam, speaking from his office in Colombo, said the projects are geared toward welcoming not just Chinese but Indian and other international companies and investors.
The cityâ€™s developers hope people will make Colombo a regional base. A large, Chinese-orchestrated land reclamation project not far from his office will have luxury accommodation, international schools and a marina. Itâ€™s being marketed as a â€œworld-class city for South Asiaâ€.
Negotiating deals with India and China wonâ€™t be easy. New Delhi has dragged out trade deals before and Sri Lankaâ€™s population is wary of Asiaâ€™s two most populous nations swamping this country of around 21 million people â€“ roughly the population of New Delhi â€“ with goods, services and professionals. Still, a Sri Lankan finance ministry official said a deal with India could happen in about a yearâ€™s time.
â€œWe are working hard to do those deals as quickly as possible, because that will benefit our trade, business and investment,â€ Kariyawasam said, adding that the country will also need to evolve its regulatory environment. â€œSri Lankaâ€™s goal is to be a hub for the Indian Ocean.â€