Sri Lanka, China FTA expected to conclude this year

Beijing (IANS): Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris said Wednesday that the Sri Lanka-China free trade agreement (FTA) was expected to be concluded before the end of this year.

“The feasibility study is on the verge of completion. It will be a landmark, historic achievement since the Rubber-Rice Pact in 1952,” Xinhua quoted Peiris as saying before wrapping up his four-day visit to China.

Sri Lanka has set a 7.5 percent economic growth target for 2014. Promoting trade with China, India and Japan will be part of the policy package for realising the goal, in particular signing the FTA with China as soon as possible.

Access to the vast Chinese market will be much easier for Sri Lanka. It will open the door for more rapid expansion of trade, investment and tourism; a whole range of economic activities will be facilitated, Peiris said.

Since Sri Lanka ended a 30-year civil war in 2009, China emerged as the island nation’s largest loan provider, funding massive infrastructure projects in highways, railways, coal power plants, airports and harbours that are estimated to be worth around $4 billion.

“In terms of development assistance, China is among the nations contributing most to Sri Lanka’s economy,” Peiris said.

Sri Lanka is also transforming its economy for growth. The 7.2 percent economic growth in 2013 can be mainly attributed to “economic diversification”, Peiris said, referring to reduced dependence on the export of traditional agricultural commodities, greatly expanding the service sector, banking, insurance and information technology.

Peiris said his country has increased tourism marketing in China. “We expect Chinese tourists can increase from 50,000 in 2013 to 100,000 in the near future.”

Chinese tourists flocked to the tropical island in January this year reaching 10,779 visitors, a 223.9 percent increase from a year earlier, according to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Board data.

Reconstruction and rehabilitation is going smoothly in Sri Lanka after nearly three decades of civil war ended in 2009, Peris said.

“A great deal has been done in Sri Lanka, considering we have to deal within four years with all the issues arising over three decades. We have legitimate reasons for satisfaction with that,” Peris said.

Sri Lanka has come under heavy pressure from the West and human rights groups for alleged war crimes during the final months of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels. Human rights groups have alleged that thousands of civilians were killed in the process, an allegation the government denies.

Peiris’s visit to China comes as the US is mulling a third resolution on Sri Lanka’s human rights record to be presented before the United Nations Human Rights Council in March.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with Peiris and expressed support for Sri Lanka’s efforts to safeguard national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“China opposes other countries’ interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka under the pretext of human rights issues,” Wang was quoted as saying.