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Chinese envoy's visit to Tamil-dominated northern Sri Lanka sparks curiosity, concern in India

The Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka visit to the Northern region of Sri Lanka, during which he travelled to Jaffna and Mannar and the northernmost point of the island at Point Pedro, has raised curiosity, and concern

Dec 27, 2021
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Chinese envoy's visit to Tamil-dominated northern Sri Lanka (Photo: Tamil Guardian)

The Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka visit to the Northern region of Sri Lanka, during which he travelled to Jaffna and Mannar and the northernmost point of the island at Point Pedro, has raised curiosity, and concern.  His visit would not have gone unnoticed in India either. Ambassador Qi Zhenhong’svisit, according to reports, appeared to be more of a concerted attempt to win local hearts and minds, as well as create a substantial Chinese footprint in the Tamil-dominated North Eastern province.

During his trip to Point Pedro, the northernmost point of the country, the Chinese envoy asked officials accompanying him what was the distance from that point to India, to which he was told it was 30 km, according to UNI news agency. 

The Chinese envoy also visited historic Nallur Kovil and pointedly participated in Hindu religious rituals, bare-bodied and wearing the traditional vetti in accordance with local Tamil custom. All these actions made for good optics and were seen as an excellent example of public diplomacy.

He had what was described as "a fruitful meeting" with the governor of the Northern Province, Jeewan Thiyagarajah, at the Governor’s Residence on the evening of December 15.

On the request of the Governor’s Secretariat, the ambassador donated five sets of ROI (water purification) mobile plants to the province, one unit for each district. The high-quality ROI mobile plants will provide fresh water to thousands of people in various areas. Drinking water is a pressing issue in Jaffna peninsula, dailymirror.lk said.

The ambassador focused on the fisheries sector. The delegation along with Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda inspected the Guilan Sea Cucumber Hatchery and Farm at Ariyalai in Jaffna, a Chinese investment. The ambassador donated piles of packs of foodstuff (Rs. 5,500 each), fishing gears and facial masks purchased from local suppliers, valued Rs. 20 million to 2,500 fisher families.

Fisheries is a key sector in the North because of the conflict between local fishermen and their Indian counterparts who are accused of poaching in Sri Lankan waters.

Asked by newsfirst.lk about whether it was the end of his visit, the ambassador was quoted as saying that although this was the end of his visit, it was also a beginning.  "This is the End, but also the Beginning", is what the envoy said following his visit to Adam’s Bridge in the North of Sri Lanka on Friday. Ambassador Qi was escorted to Adam’s Bridge by the Sri Lanka Navy and troops by the Sri Lanka Army.

The beginning of what remains unanswered.

Adam’s Bridge, also called Rama’s Bridge, is a chain of shoals, between the islands of Mannar, near northwestern Sri Lanka, and Rāmeswaram, off the southeastern coast of India. 

“For the Tamils, this renewed Chinese venture comes with pitfalls to be wary of and many will remain cynical. There are legitimate fears that the local economy may be exploited and resources ransacked," one local daily wrote.

The envoy’s visit also comes amid a diplomatic row over Colombo’s refusal to pay for millions of dollars worth of a fertilizer shipment that Sri Lanka has rejected saying it was contaminated with harmful bacteria. The row has led to the Chinese government blacklisting a Sri Lankan bank. Sri Lanka has now agreed to take delivery of organic fertilizer from China’s Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co Ltd, almost two months after Colombo had rejected its shipment, citing poor standards, forcing the firm to initiate arbitration proceedings.

Colombo also terminated Chinese plans to build wind power plants on the Jaffna islets last month, and instead gave those to India. However, China moved the power plant project to the Maldives, stating that it would be Sri Lanka’s loss.

China has been concerned over the suspension of the wind power projects which were to be implemented by one of its companies in three northern islands. A Chinese company Sinosoar-Etechwin Joint Venture, had won the project to build power projects in three northern islands - Delft, Analativu, and Nainativu islands. The project company could not proceed with the project since Sri Lanka suspended it following a request by India citing security concerns.

Chinese investments have mostly been in the southern part of Sri Lanka, including the seaport in Hambantota, an airport in Mattala and a container terminal in Colombo port. 

Indian investments, on the other hand, have been to the North and the East of Sri Lanka. India has also built a Jaffna Cultural Centre and also has a diplomatic presence in Jaffna. India has offered to invest in the expansion of the Jaffna International Airport and the Kankesanthurai port.

Qi’s visit to the North comes in the backdrop of a 1,000 MW wind power project being developed by India's Adani Group in Mannar. Adani Group Chairman Gautam Adani was recently in Sri Lanka, which was followed by Sri Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapakse’s visit to India, in the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s major cash crunch. (SAM)

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