Free Trade Agreement with China before year’s end


World leaders at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing on May 14 and 15. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is sixth from left in the second row.

by Zacki Jabbar in Beijing , China

Sri Lanka hopes to finalise a Free Trade Agreement with China before the end of this year.

Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema said on Tuesday shortly after bilateral talks between Sri Lanka and China in Beijing, that he was confident of a free trade pact beneficial to both countries being finalized before December.

The Cabinet of Ministers recently approved a proposal by Samarawickrema to sign an Investment Promotion and Economic and Technical Cooperation agreement with China, under the Memorandum of Understanding that was entered into in April 2016.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who led the Sri Lankan delegation at talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang said that the government was not looking at individual projects alone, but pursuing its goal of developing Sri Lanka into a logistical and shipping hub as well.

"Our discussions included the Colombo Financial City, the Hambantota Industrial Project and the next steps involved." , he said adding that China would honour its commitments.

Wickremesinghe said that the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation which concluded on Monday in Beijing was no longer about China alone , as every participating country was doing its bit in addition to the World Bank , International Monetary Fund and the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB).

America too sent its representative , he observed. "We are glad to have participated in the BRF ,since it would boost development and create jobs. It’s a historical first for trade and economic plans of Euroasian countries."

The Prime Minister said that both Japan and China had accepted Sri Lanka as the hub of the Indian Ocean considering its strategic location.

Addressing the Leaders Roundtable of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Yanqi Lake International Convention Center on Monday, Wickremesinghe said that the National Unity Government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena had brought together the two main political parties in the country, giving it an opportunity to bring about the strategic repositioning

"Sri Lanka plans to use its strategic location and leverage on our connectivity, to become the Hub of the Indian Ocean. History has shown peace and freedom of navigation always resulted in economic growth and prosperity", he added.

The Prime Minister said that the BRF initiative of President Xi Jinping complemented Sri Lanka’s own initiatives as they shared the same synergies.

Similarly, the success of BRF and Sri Lankan plans would depend on the maintenance of long-term stability in the Indian Ocean by promoting peaceful and non-military cooperation - the five principles of Peaceful Co-existence and ensuring unimpeded commerce based on the multilateral trading system, he emphasized.

Wickremesinghe recalled the words of Jinping at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year saying " let us boost confidence, take actions and march arm in arm towards a bright future."

On the sidelines of BRF, the Prime Minister held wide ranging talks with the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Myanmar Counselor Aung Saan Suu Kyi.

The BRF took place amidst concerted attempts by China to get India on board for its Silk Route Project, popularly know as One Belt One Road.

The multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative aims to connect Asia and Europe in a vast network of roads, railways, pipelines, airports, sea ports, transnational electrical grids and fiber optic lines of communication though the creation of an economic land belt traversing Central Asia and the Middle East, as well as a maritime road that links China with the ports of the Indian Ocean, East Africa and the Mediterranean.

Its goal is to bolster trade by overcoming one of the biggest impediments to global growth, chronic lack of infrastructure.

The Belt and Road Forum aims to enhance global understanding of the Belt and Road Initiative and provide a platform for corporations, industry, financial institutions, governments and scholars to engage and collaborate toward a common goal of greater Euro-Asian connectivity, prosperity and security.

The inaugural meeting of the BRF was held on November 30, 2016 at the National Press Club in Washington DC.

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China Karunasena Kodituwakku said that President Jinping had agreed to provide grants totalling Rmb 400 million this year and Rmb 2000 million for 2018 and 2019.

In addition the AIIB would provide concessionary loans, while the Silk Route Fund has also pledged assistance. This was the first time that such commitments had been obtained,he revealed.

Special projects Minister Sarath Amunugama said that the Chinese leaders had wanted Sri Lanka to industrialise for which support would be forthcoming.

There would be no use in developing ports and airports if ships and planes never came, he added with a smile.

The delegates included officials, entrepreneurs, financiers and journalists from over a 100 countries and representatives of key international organizations, such as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, World Bank President Jim Yong Ki and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde.

The Sri Lankan delegation led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe included his wife wife Maithree Wickremesinghe, Minister for Special Projects Sarath Amunugama, Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade Malik Samarawickrema, City Planning and Water Supply Minister Rauff Hakeem and Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development Sagala Ratnayake, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China Karunasena Kodituwakku , the Premiers Secretary Saman Ekanayake,Additional Secretary Saman Athaudahetti and Special Assistant Sandra Perera and the Foreign Ministry's Director for Asia and Pacific Savitri Panabokke and Acting Director China and AIIB Division, ERD Silva.

Other heads of state and government leaders who attended the Forum were Argentinean President Mauricio Macri, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Czech President Milos Zeman, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Lao President Bounnhang Vorachit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Swiss President Doris Leuthard, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Mongolian Prime Minister Jargaltulga Erdenebat, Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

President Xi Jinping delivering the opening address at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the China National Convention Center in Bejing on Sunday attended by 28 world leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the vision of a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable financial security system should be fostered.

"Stable and sustainable financial safeguards that include risk controls has to be developed", he stressed adding that in pursuance of BRF initiative the focus should be on the fundamental issue of development, growth potential of countries and achieving economic integration and interconnected development that delivered benefits to all.

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