| Global Times | 2013-5-28 0:38:01
By Yang Jingjie in Colombo and Hambantota
Almost four years ago, Sri Lanka celebrated the eradication of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but was left with an economy torn apart by a war that had lasted nearly three decades. Rebuilding the economy has since become a top priority for the island nation.
In the same year, China replaced Japan as the country's top donor.
Sri Lanka's Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa told the Global Times that China played "a big role" after his country achieved peace, with Chinese enterprises involved in major development projects, primarily in infrastructure.
While China and its investments have been well-received by locals, regional powers view Beijing's intentions in developing ties with Colombo with suspicion.
Palitha Deshapriya, who first came to Hambantota in 1991, told the Global Times that back then the local people relied on agriculture, even though the area is one of the driest regions in Sri Lanka, and no investor could come due to poor roads.
However, the area has now been turned into one of the most promising regions in the country since the development of Hambantota Port.
Built by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), Phase 1 of the project concluded in 2010, with two breakwaters, two 100,000-ton-class berths, an oil terminal and two port boat quays being completed.
Zhang Lianjiu, a deputy general manager of CHEC's Hambantota Port project, told the Global Times the project is now in Phase 2, which aims to build more berths and is expected to finish in November 2015.
"We hired more than 2,000 Sri Lankans, most of them locals, during the peak of Phase 1. After the war, there was a shortage of skilled labor so our Chinese staff passed along their skills to the Sri Lankan workers during the process," another manager surnamed Zhou told the Global Times.
Building the port has been a childhood dream of Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose hometown is in the southern province.
In Mahinda Chintana (Mahinda Vision), the president vowed to make Sri Lanka the center of the Asian silk route once again by taking advantage of its unique geographical location, and developing the country into a navigation, aviation, trading and commercial center linking East and West.
Hambantota, which is only 10 nautical miles away from the busiest International Europe-Far East Shipping Route, seeks to become an intermediate harbor and eventually rival Singapore.
Agil Hewageegana, chief engineer of Sri Lanka Ports Authority, told the Global Times that the industrial port is driving the development of the whole area, and that the original two-lane dirt road in the area has become a six-lane road.
"We selected six proposals out of 72, and signed agreements with three big companies. They are going to invest nearly $700 million within the port area and another 10 companies are negotiating with us," he said.
Some 40 kilometers away from the port is Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, which officially opened on March 18.
The airport, which was also built by CHEC, is the country's second international airport and the only one built since independence in 1948.
Prasanna J. Wickramasuriya, chairman of Airport & Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Limited, told the Global Times he is very satisfied with the project and that it has already created 1,235 direct jobs. "There will be many indirect jobs in sectors such as tourism. The entire area will get a boost," he said.
The ambitious plan to develop Hambantota into the largest port in South Asia didn't turn into reality easily due to a shortage of funds.
Sri Lanka reportedly asked India to assist in developing the area but found no takers until China responded warmly to the request.
According to Hewageegana, the Export-Import Bank of China provided around $500 million in loans for the Phase 1 project.
Another $200-million loan has been provided by China for the airport, and the Export-Import Bank of China also agreed to provide $278 million for a railway linking Hambantota Port to Mattala.
It is reported that China became Sri Lanka's biggest foreign lender in 2009, a position formerly held by Japan.
A local source told the Global Times that by the end of 2012, China had channeled $8.6 billion in funds to the island nation.
Basil Rajapaksa, the economic development minister, said China's policies of not attaching political strings to aid were well accepted by the Sri Lankan people.
In addition to airport and harbor projects, Chinese enterprises are also building highways, railroads and power plants while China also helped launch the country's first communications satellite in December.
However, the close ties between the two countries also prompted speculation that China is jockeying for influence in the country, against the backdrop of its navy's anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean since 2008.
Addressing such concerns, China's ambassador to Sri Lanka Wu Jianghao said recently that given that more than 70 percent of China's imported energy resources go through the Indian Ocean, China is working hard to keep the sea lane safe and unobstructed by expanding friendly contacts and cooperation with regional players.
"Here is our fundamental principle: we will not interfere in the domestic issues of countries in the region, nor hurt the interests of other countries, and we will never do things that the regional countries don't want us to do," Wu said.
There has also been speculation that the port will be developed into a Chinese military base, and India is particularly concerned that it is part of China's so-called String of Pearls strategy to encircle New Delhi.
Sri Lanka's foreign minister G.L. Peiris told the Global Times in an exclusive interview that "China has never at any time, by word or deed or implication, said that they want to establish a military base in Sri Lanka," adding that his country is not in favor of any foreign military base.
"What we have done is using resources that were available from China to construct these facilities which are necessary for the economic development. How can anyone find fault with that?" he said.
Peiris also reassured India that there is no need for anxiety, saying China has never sought to use its relations with Sri Lanka to harm other countries.
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