China`s Xi heads to Sri Lanka seeking to boost ties

Chinese President Xi Jinping will on Tuesday begin his first state visit to Sri Lanka, seeking to bolster already strong ties with the island just days after Japan`s prime minister launched a rival bid for influence.

AFP| Last Updated: Sep 16, 2014, 03:26 AM IST

Colombo: Chinese President Xi Jinping will on Tuesday begin his first state visit to Sri Lanka, seeking to bolster already strong ties with the island just days after Japan`s prime minister launched a rival bid for influence.

China is already the biggest foreign investor in Sri Lanka and during his visit, Xi will launch construction of a new $1.4 billion port city being built with funding from Beijing.

The new development will go up next to a $500 million Chinese-owned container terminal, the only mega port in South Asia and a powerful reminder of Beijing`s growing influence in a region that India has historically dominated.

India`s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked on a regional charm offensive since taking office in May to restore relationships critics say the previous government neglected.

But Sri Lanka`s economic development minister Basil Rajapakse said ahead of the visit his country`s close ties with China should not be a cause for concern.

"We are looking for trade, investment and tourism," Rajapakse told AFP. "India is also looking to China so I do not see anything wrong in our having close ties with them."

China is increasingly asserting its influence in the Indian Ocean, with Sri Lanka a midway point on one of the world`s busiest international shipping lanes.

But it faces competition from Japan, which relies on the same maritime trade routes and is eager to increase its influence in the region.

Xi`s visit comes in the same month Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travelled to Sri Lanka, securing an agreement that the two countries would forge stronger maritime links.The ambitious port city project being developed by Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) with Chinese backing will include a luxury marina and a Formula One race track.

SLPA chief Priyath Bandu Wickrama said the port would be "based on commercial interests".

"We will not allow our ports for any military purposes," he told AFP. "There is nothing for anyone to fear."

Beijing has already financed the construction of Sri Lanka`s second international airport and another deep sea port in the southern district of Hambantota, the home constituency of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

During his visit, Xi is expected to commission the third phase of a 900-megawatt coal power plant China has built in the island`s north-western cost.

But a military aircraft maintenance facility Sri Lanka sought to establish with Chinese help has been in limbo since India privately objected to its chosen venue, the eastern port district of Trincomalee.

Trincomalee is a natural deep sea harbour which allied forces used as a staging post during World war II and is still considered strategically important.

The Chinese president heads to Sri Lanka after a two-day visit to the Maldives, which agreed to greater cooperation with Beijing on economic and security issues.

He also secured Maldivian backing for Xi`s "21st century maritime silk road" -- an attempt to revive the historic trade route by boosting maritime cooperation between China and other Asian nations that has already won Sri Lanka`s support.