Chinese foreign minister to visit Maldives, Sri Lanka to shore up ties

Wang’s visit to Colombo comes at a time when Sri Lanka is facing a crippling economic crisis due to dollar shortage, besides serious differences between the two countries over the quality of fertiliser shipment.

Wang will visit Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros from Jan 4-7 and from there he will travel to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing here on Thursday.
Wang will visit Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros from Jan 4-7 and from there he will travel to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing here on Thursday.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit the Maldives and Sri Lanka early next month as part of Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence in both the South Asian countries strategically located in the Indian Ocean.

Wang will visit Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros from Jan 4-7 and from there he will travel to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing here on Thursday.

The foreign minister’s visit to the two South Asian countries come at the 50th anniversary of China-Maldives diplomatic relations, 65th anniversary of China-Sri Lanka diplomatic relations and the 70th anniversary of the Rubber-Rice Pact between Colombo and Beijing, Zhao said.

Signed in 1952, the Rubber-Rice Pact was a trade agreement between Lanka and China under which Colombo supplied rubber to Beijing in exchange for rice, leading to the establishment of diplomatic relations and expansion of trade between the two nations.

Wang’s visit to Male and Colombo is regarded as significant in Beijing as China seeks to stabilise its influence in both the countries acquired through massive investments for over a decade, much to the concern of New Delhi.

In Maldives, the present government headed by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, unlike his pro-China predecessor Abdullah Yameen, consolidated its relations with India, re-balancing the strategic paradigm in the archipelagic country located close to India’s southern coast.

Wang’s visit to Male comes in the backdrop of Yameen’s release from house arrest last month after Maldives Supreme Court overturned a money-laundering and embezzlement conviction against him, paving the way for his possible return to active politics.

In the past few years, China faced strong criticism of its investments in the Maldives, especially from former president and current Speaker of Maldives Parliament Mohamed Nasheed who accused Beijing of indulging in land grab through its investments, posing a threat to the peace and the stability of the entire region.

According to estimates, Maldives debt to China stood at USD 3.4 billion, raising concerns over its pay back ability, especially after the island nation was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Maldives’ economy also depends on the inflow of a large number of Chinese tourists.

Wang’s visit to Colombo comes at a time when Sri Lanka is facing a crippling economic crisis due to dollar shortage, besides serious differences between the two countries over the quality of fertiliser shipment.

In a rare legal action against Beijing’s close ally, a Chinese firm has launched international arbitration against Sri Lanka Lanka in Singapore for rejecting a large consignment of its fertiliser after failing to reach a “constructive agreement” to resolve the issue.

Wang last visited Colombo in January 2020 after Gotabaya Rajapaksa took charge as President. That visit took place amid concerns over Lanka’s outstanding debt to Beijing over several large scale infrastructure projects, including the strategic Hambantota port that China took over on a 99-year lease as debt swap, raising a global anxiety over China’s investment pattern under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Recent reports from Colombo said Wang could come up with more investment proposals, including the USD 1.4 billion Colombo Port City project being funded by Beijing to bail out Lanka’s economy, which is in dire straits due to severe foreign currency shortage.

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