China project in Sri Lanka expected to survive election

Workers for the United National Party of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe handing out election material during a rally in Colombo. Pundits expect the ruling reformist alliance to win a majority in Monday's election.
Workers for the United National Party of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe handing out election material during a rally in Colombo. Pundits expect the ruling reformist alliance to win a majority in Monday's election.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Work on 'port city' likely to resume even if alliance that halted development wins vote

COLOMBO • Work on a landmark Chinese-backed waterfront development in Colombo could resume after next Monday's general election in Sri Lanka, even if Beijing's preferred candidate for prime minister, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is defeated.

Eight months after losing power, the 69-year-old strongman is mounting a comeback bid. But his campaign - dogged by allegations of corruption and abuse of power that he denies - is flagging.

The reformist alliance that rallied to elect President Maithripala Sirisena in January remains intact. Pundits say it should secure a majority and can call on the backing of smaller parties if needed.

Although pro-Western in his outlook, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is not about to slam the door on China. Beijing has already pumped billions of dollars into Sri Lanka to build a staging post on its "Maritime Silk Route" to the Middle East and on to Europe.

"We want to be a non-aligned investment attraction," Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake said. Asked what that meant, he joked: "Taking from everybody."

Talks are under way to amend the terms of the US$1.4 billion (S$1.9 billion) "port city" project in Colombo.

Work was halted soon after Mr Sirisena took power as his government investigated whether the Rajapaksa-era deal broke rules and involved corrupt payments.

Currently, the port city remains a pile of boulders strewn along the fenced-off shoreline by Colombo's commercial seaport. But cranes are still working on the Shangri-La hotel, part of Hong Kong-listed Shangri-La Asia Ltd, just along the coastal strip. Construction of the Chinese-funded Lotus Tower, destined to be South Asia's tallest building, also continues.

Locals joke that the tower would be the ideal vantage point to mount a surveillance operation. While China denies building a listening post, one Western diplomat said that some Chinese-built infrastructure in Sri Lanka had been designed for "dual use" - meaning it could serve both military and civilian purposes. That includes Colombo's seaport, where two Chinese nuclear submarines and a warship have docked, alarming India.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'China project in Sri Lanka expected to survive election'. Print Edition | Subscribe