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Sri Lanka defends decision to join China’s Obor project

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-06-2017 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: Sri Lankan foreign minister Ravi Karunanayake on Wednesday defended his country’s move to join China’s controversial One Belt One Road (Obor) infrastructure initiative, stating that it was a considered decision taken on the basis of its foreign policy, whose motto is “friends with all and enemies with none.”

In New Delhi on his first visit as foreign minister after taking office less than a fortnight ago, Karunanayake said India had discussed the subject of Sri Lanka joining the Obor project with Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

“We are a small country and our foreign policy is friends with all, enemies with none,” he said.

Sri Lanka has been a key point in international shipping routes that have been criss-crossing from east to west for several hundreds of years and joining Obor was a natural consequence of this, the minister said.

China’s Obor project aims to put billions of dollars in infrastructure projects including railways, ports and power grids across Asia, Africa and Europe.

It is expected to burnish Beijing’s free trade credentials and offer President Xi Jinping a chance to boost China’s global leadership ambitions as the US looks to promote its own “America first” policy.

India, which was invited to an international conference on Obor last month, declined to attend given its reservations as a strand of the project, the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC), cuts through the Gilgit and Baltistan areas of Kashmir which India claims are illegally held by Pakistan.

India’s statement announcing its decision not to attend the Obor conference on 14-15 May made a pointed reference to how “connectivity initiatives must follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden for communities; balanced ecological and environmental protection and preservation standards; transparent assessment of project costs; and skill and technology transfer to help long term running and maintenance of the assets created by local communities.”

“Connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Indian statement said.

New Delhi’s warning on how connectivity projects should not “create unsustainable debt burden” for countries was seen as a reference to Sri Lanka’s debt crisis, triggered by the country taking loans from China for construction of ports like the one at Hambantota, the hometown of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse.

In other comments, Karunanayake indicated that Indian companies could be in contention to bag a new tender for developing a new container terminal at the Colombo port -- a move that will underline Colombo’s credentials as a major transshipment hub.

An earlier tender issued for the construction of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo port was scrapped recently by Sri Lanka authorities.

According to Karunanayake, the present capacity of the container terminal is five million tonnes which would increase to 10-11 million tonnes with the construction of the East Container Terminal.

When asked if India could be one of the contenders for the new tender, Karunanayake said: “Most definitely.”

“We believe India is our closest neighbour and most friendly of them all and they have to be economically involved,” he said adding, “production of India is what will go through the port of Colombo.”

The latter was a reference to India using the Colombo deep sea port for unloading international cargo and then using smaller boats to bring it to Indian ports.

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