China reaffirms support for Sri Lanka

China has said it would continue to support Sri Lanka, as the crisis-hit island nation’s prime minister on Saturday wrapped up a visit to Beijing to try to finalise a debt restructuring deal.

Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena arrived in China on Monday for a visit that included meeting President Xi Jinping and an appearance at the Boao Forum, a high-profile international meeting.

Sri Lanka’s years-long economic crisis was high on the agenda during Gunawardena’s trip, with China accounting for around 10 percent of the South Asian country’s total foreign debt.

China is willing to “continue supporting its financial institutions to actively negotiate with Sri Lanka, maintain friendly communication with other creditors, play a positive role in the International Monetary Fund, assist Sri Lanka in financial relief,” Beijing’s foreign ministry said in the Chinese version of a joint bilateral statement released Friday.

The two sides agreed to “make every effort to promote the Port City Colombo and Hambantota Development Project, turning them into flagship projects of the Sino-Sri Lankan joint construction of the ‘Belt and Road'”, the statement said, referring to Xi’s massive Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative.

The southern sea port of Hambantota was considered among the white-elephant projects launched by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ruled the country for a decade until 2015.

Rajapaksa borrowed heavily from China for projects that many criticised as a debt trap that led to the worst economic crisis in Sri Lanka’s history.

Unable to repay a huge loan taken from China in 2017 to build Hambantota port, Sri Lanka handed it over to the state-owned China Merchants Group for $1.12 billion on a 99-year lease.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $46 billion external debt in April 2022 after it ran out of foreign exchange to finance even essential imports such as food, fuel and medicine.

It secured a $2.9 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout last year, with the programme conditional on a debt deal that satisfies foreign creditors.

China had agreed “in principle” to restructure Sri Lanka’s debt in December, but neither Colombo nor Beijing had given details and the two are yet to finalise an agreement.

Sri Lanka’s government said in January that a foreign debt restructure would be finalised by the beginning of April.

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