Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday appeared dismissive of trade agreements in South Asia, saying there was “too much politics” and that the country needed to broaden its partnerships with “whoever we want”.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think there will be overseas trade integration in the South Asian region. No, there has to be a bilateral agreement with whoever we want,” he said, speaking at a conference on rebuilding the Island nation’s economy that is reeling under its worst crisis.
“There’s too much of politics involved for there to be a regional trade agreement in South Asia. We can keep that aside. We can have integration in dancing, cooking, but certainly, you’re not going to have integration as far as the economy is concerned,” Mr Wickremesinghe said.
Though he did not name India, the remarks could trigger consternation in New Delhi. The main engine of South Asian engagement, India has long strived to steer Sri Lanka away from China, in efforts that came to a head this week amid a planned visit by a Chinese “spy” ship to a port in the country.
Indian government sources had said the progress of the ship was being monitored. India has made it clear it will closely track “any bearing on India’s security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them”.
Apart from 5 billion dollars’ worth of aid to the crisis-hit country, India has several trade deals with Sri Lanka.
Two days ago, meeting the newly appointed Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reaffirmed India’s commitment as “a dependable friend and reliable partner, to the economic recovery and well-being” of the island nation.
Addressing the crisis and the pile of debt – much of it owed to China – at the conference, Mr Wickremesinghe said, “First the foreign debt and then if you look at the official debt, are we getting caught into the geopolitics of the region of Asia? Geopolitics, that’s the issue.”
Pitching tighter trade relations with Southeast Asian countries, Indo-Pacific nations, Europe and the US, he also referred to the Chinese-run Sri Lankan port of Hambantota where China’s ship was set to visit.
“If you look at India, Bangladesh and Pakistan economies, logistics can have a big role to play. Here in Colombo in Hambantota and Trincomalee, this is how we use our strategic position,” the Sri Lankan President said.
News agency AFP reported on Saturday that Sri Lanka had asked China to indefinitely delay the visit by Yuan Wang 5 ship, which can be used for surveillance, and tracking intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellites, to Hambantota.