By Sugeeswara Senadhira
Colombo, April 30 (Daily News): The Chinese Defense Minister Gen.Wei Fenghe’s visit to Sri Lanka this week could be described as yet another high-level exchange to boost political and economic cooperation as much as defense links with Sri Lanka’s closest and most dependable friend.
Minister Wei was the second senior Chinese official to have visited the country since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic after the trip by China’s foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi in October 2020.
After his talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Gen.Wei said the bilateral discussions held with the President were extremely fruitful. He also said that the relations between the two nations were further strengthened by this visit.
This was reciprocated by Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “Had a fruitful discussion with #china defense minister General Wei Fenghe this morning. This visit will further strengthen the ties between two countries,” Rajapaksa tweeted.
Sri Lanka and China signed a protocol on defense cooperation and to mark the strong defense ties, the website of the association of Chinese Defense University’s Sri Lankan alumni was also launched. There are more than 80 Sri Lankan officers who passed out from the Chinese Defense University.
The fact that the Defense Minister was accompanied by Deputy Chief of Staff of the Joint Staff Department under China’s Central Military Commission, Lieutenant General Shao Yuanming as well as Major General Ci Guowei, who heads China’s international defense cooperation, showed the importance Beijing gives to defense ties with Sri Lanka.
“We are looking forward to working together with Sri Lanka to enhance practical cooperation and to promote bilateral relations to a greater extent,” Gen.Wei said after his discussions in Colombo.
Wei’s visit marks another important milestone in China–Sri Lanka relations, which have stood the test of time. What continued from the ancient spiritual ties since the visits of Chinese Buddhist monks centuries ago, received a big boost when the Rubber-Rice deal was signed in 1952, even before the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two newly independent countries. The Ceylon–China Trade Agreement of 1952 was undoubtedly the most useful trade agreement negotiated by Sri Lanka and one of the most successful and durable trade agreements in the world, having been in operation for 30 years.
As President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in October 2020 after his talks with top foreign policy official Yang Jiechi, who is a member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo and the Director of the Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission, China’s selfless help and governance experience are of vital importance to Sri Lanka’s economic and social development.
Under the defense protocol signed between the two countries, China provides military training, communication equipment and other services to Sri Lanka as a grant.
As President Rajapaksa told the Chinese delegation last year, the allegation that China was funding the Colombo Port City project in Sri Lanka to gain influence in local affairs is a fabrication. “Many geopolitical analysts interpret this project as a ‘debt trap’ set up by China to gain control over Sri Lankan affairs. I want to prove that it is not the case and that this large-scale project will help improve the living standards of the people. We are convinced that it would be a project with a vast potential for generating income and employment opportunities,” he told the Chinese delegation.
Minister Wei held discussions with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who later tweeted: “We also discussed post-pandemic economic recovery and steps to be taken to ensure economic stability. Assistance in rebuilding investor confidence and attracting investments – I explained is a key priority for Sri Lanka and essential in the path to economic growth of the country.”
Liu Yang Sloan of the NeoChina International Research Centre said high-level visits would boost bilateral cooperation between the two countries, and as strategic cooperation partners, they should continue to maintain high-level exchanges and consolidate mutual political trust.
“China has identified a number of areas conducive to the development of multilateral cooperation with Sri Lanka in addition to completing large-scale projects already underway; these include agriculture, education, tourism, water supply, healthcare, medical supplies, modern technology, the Digital Economy, the Blue Economy, and labor training,” he said.
The two countries attach great importance to military-to-military ties and the Chinese military has expressed willingness to strengthen pragmatic cooperation in various fields with the Sri Lankan military. The two sides agreed to strengthen defense cooperation, and maintain the momentum of visits between the two defense authorities and military forces at all levels.
Further, the two countries agreed to intensify cooperation in military training, training of personnel and to cooperate in the areas of defense-related science and technology, exchange of military academics, and provide logistic support.
Although, a section of Indian analysts expressed concern over the visit of Chinese Defense Minister to Sri Lanka, the majority of the views expressed through the Indian media was that India need not be concerned over Wei’s visit. They pointed out that Sri Lanka had assured India it would not allow any country to have a military base on its soil and it would not encourage activities that could jeopardize India’s security interests.
Former Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said there was nothing to suggest Wei was coming to clinch a significant military deal.
“The visit is aimed at strengthening bilateral ties at a time when Sri Lanka is saying it does not want to get drawn into military confrontation between great powers,” he said.
Mathai’s interpretation of the possible aim of the Chinese Defence Minister’s visit was to ensure Sri Lanka stayed “neutral” with regard to tensions over China’s increasingly assertive actions in the Indo-Pacific.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a four-nation group comprising the United States, India, Japan and Australia that is aimed at countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, has been increasing the pressure on Beijing in recent months by seeking a common front with other coastal states in the region.
Former Indian Foreign Secretary Mathai said Sri Lanka and other nations in South Asia shared China’s concerns about the Quad. He said the recent passage of an American warship through India’s exclusive economic zone without Delhi’s consent could be highlighted during Wei’s visit as a way of illustrating US double standards.
“It also ensures India’s Quad-based strategies will find critics in India’s neighborhood,” Mathai added.
However, it has not been disclosed if the issue was discussed during the Chinese Minister’s visit to Colombo.
Sri Lanka’s relationship with China has therefore evolved through Buddhism, trade and aid, and in recent years it has been upgraded to a strategic cooperative partnership. Apart from being a major trading partner, China has also has become a major partner in Sri Lanka’s drive towards economic development with more strategic ties based on infrastructure development and global connectivity.
In addition, China had always supported Sri Lanka in global forums, especially at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), based on a shared understanding of certain basic norms of international relations, such as non-interference in the internal affairs of States.
Hence, Defense Minister Wei’s visit is another important milestone in the close bilateral relationship with China, a nation Sri Lanka considers as a dependable friend on the global stage and an indispensable partner in Sri Lanka’s economic development.