Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Friday said he had a “very productive” conversation with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang and thanked him for assuring support to his government to address some of the crucial needs affecting peoples’ livelihoods and well-being, amidst the worst economic crisis in the island nation. The telephone conversation between Rajapaksa and Li, which took place at the Sri Lankan prime minister’s request, comes as the Sri Lanka is grappling with its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.
Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets across the country as the government ran out of money for vital imports which has seen the prices of essential commodities skyrocket and led to acute shortages of fuel, medicines and electricity. “Had a very productive conversation with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. I reiterated Sri Lanka’s gratitude to China for the longstanding friendship and for assuring support to address some of the crucial needs affecting peoples’ livelihoods and well-being in these difficult times,” Rajapaksa tweeted. In Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency reported that Li told Rajapaksa that China empathises with Sri Lanka for the difficulties and challenges facing the South Asian country. Li said that China is “ready to provide much-needed livelihood assistance for Sri Lanka within its capacity.” China is ready to play a constructive role in Sri Lanka’s stable socio-economic development based on the principle of non-interference in its internal affairs and on the premise of respecting Sri Lanka’s will, the report quoted Li as saying. China supports continuous progress in bilateral practical cooperation projects, and hopes for an early start of the negotiation and signing of their free trade agreement, so as to enhance mutually beneficial cooperation, Li added. The Chinese premier noted that the two countries enjoy profound traditional friendship and are strategic cooperative partners. “China is ready to consolidate political mutual trust with Sri Lanka, strengthen solidarity and mutual assistance among developing countries, deepen practical cooperation in various fields and push for sound and stable development of bilateral relations,” added said. The conversation between the two prime ministers came a day after the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo Qi Zhenhong met Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Prof. G L Peiris and discussed the current social & economic situation in the island nation. The Chinese embassy tweeted that the envoy also discussed China’s aid/assistance to the Sri Lankan people and bilateral and international cooperation between the two countries. Earlier, Qi also met the Leader of the Opposition & Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa and assured him that China is doing all-out efforts to help Sri Lanka overcome the crisis. In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry announced this week that it will soon send emergency humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka. So far, Beijing remained silent on Chinese Ambassador Qi’s announcement that China is considering a USD 2.5 billion credit facility to Sri Lanka. Also China has so far parried questions on Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s request made to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his visit in December last year to restructure Colombo’s debt repayments to bailout his government. It is estimated that Sri Lanka owes debt payments to China to the tune of about USD 1.5 to 2 billion this year. Over all China’s loans and investments in Sri Lanka was estimated to be more than USD eight billion in the last few years for projects including roads, an airport and ports. But critics say the money was used for unnecessary schemes with low returns. Anti-government protesters in Sri Lanka are demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as they blame his policies for the crisis, but he and his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa have refused to quit. However, they have offered to amend the Constitution to clip the President’s powers and empower Parliament.