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Port City Colombo: Harnessing Sri Lanka's strategic location to fast-track development

On May 20, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa explained to Asian leaders how Sri Lanka balances relations with China and India, writes Sugeeswara Senadhira for South Asia Monitor

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Colombo Port City (File)

While a heated debate on the bill to appoint a powerful commission to govern the China-built Colombo Port City was taking place in the Sri Lankan parliament on May 20, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa explained to Asian leaders how Sri Lanka balances relations with China and India.

Delivering the keynote address at the 26th International Conference on The Future of Asia organized by Japanese media group Nikkei, he said: “While we are aware of world power rivalries and regional power dynamics, our foreign policy is neutral.”

In reply to a question from Nikkei moderator Go Yamada on balancing India and China, President Rajapaksa explained that Sri Lanka has historically maintained relationships spanning centuries with both India and China. “We will work closely with India and all regional partners to ensure that the Indian Ocean remains secure for the benefit of all countries," he emphasized.

“Our cooperation with China is on par with overall economic and commercial trajectories. We consider India our closest neighbor and a long-standing friend and we understand their security concerns and sensitivities. We will never allow anyone to use Sri Lanka to jeopardize India’s security,” he said. 

"China has been a key investment partner to Sri Lanka, as have (been) many other countries. As a developing country, Sri Lanka wishes to obtain the support of all partner nations to fast-track our development aspirations and improve the livelihoods of our people. My Government is keen to further strengthen our relationships with Asian nations and countries farther away," President Rajapaksa said.

Parliament clears Port City bill

The Colombo Port City Commission Bill has been passed with several amendments proposed by the government and opposition members of parliament, and as per the Sri Lankan Supreme Court (SC) determinations received by the speaker. The bill provides for the establishment of a commission empowered to grant registrations, licenses, authorizations, and other approvals to carry on businesses and other activities in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to be established within the Colombo Port City.

Several petitions were filed in the SC challenging the bill on grounds that some of its clauses are inconsistent with the constitution. The SC determined that some clauses would require either a 2/3rd majority in parliament or a 2/3rd majority and a simple majority at a national referendum. The government amended those clauses accordingly and the bill was passed with 148 ‘ayes’ and 59 ‘nos’.

Importance of Port City

President Rajapaksa, in his speech at The Future of Asia conference, stressed the importance of the Colombo Port City for Sri Lanka. “The new development extending the Colombo business district to 269 hectares of reclaimed land represents an exciting new opportunity for international businesses. The Port City will be a Gateway to South Asia. It will create a vibrant new cityscape incorporating an international financial center, a Marina district, outstanding residential and commercial facilities, as well as world-class infrastructure, all within a tropical beachside paradise,” he said,

“New legislation that will ensure an attractive environment for investors and greater ease of doing business within the Port City has been prepared. Special status and a host of exemptions and special incentives will be accorded to businesses that will have a broad economic impact,” he added.

The president expressed confidence that investors from all over the world will benefit greatly from these initiatives and from the Port City’s unique geo-strategic position at the heart of one of the most rapidly advancing regions in the world. “I invite all nations to encourage their businesses to take advantage of this opportunity, and to be (a) part of what will become a key service hub to this region in the future.”

Wooing IT, power generation companies

 Sri Lanka is keen on encouraging investments in technology-based industries. The island nation has large numbers of qualified, experienced and skilled professionals in the information technology space. President Rajapaksa told the fellow Asian leaders that a new legislation, including an act on personal data protection, is being formulated to create a more robust environment that will enable global technology companies to operate from Sri Lanka. The government has already instituted several other supportive measures towards this, including instituting a zero-tax policy for technology companies headquartered here. 

“My government is prepared to provide significant support to investors who seek to create value added industries in connection with these resources,” he said and added, “we also seek investments for power generation through the use of renewable sources such as wind and solar, in keeping with our growing industrial needs and our policy of enhancing environmental sustainability.”

As an island strategically located at the center of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has been a hub that connected the east and the west since ancient times. “Today, Sri Lanka has outstanding port infrastructure that can facilitate transshipment and provide world-class services even for the largest container ships. We also contribute greatly towards maintaining maritime security in this region, helping protect vital sea lines of communication on behalf of all nations.

“We are determined to safeguard our national interests based on friendly, cooperative interactions with all our partners on equal terms. We follow a neutral foreign policy. We aim to harness the advantages of our strategic location to develop our economy and uplift the wellbeing of our people in a sustainable and equitable way. We seek to significantly strengthen our bilateral relationships with all countries, and in particular with our partner countries in the Asian region in terms of trade and investment,” he added.

The new Port City Colombo, a joint venture between the Sri Lankan state and China Harbour Engineering Corporation, has 100 hectares of land ready for construction. In the next five-year strategic plan, 20 plots, in total of 60 hectares, of land adjacent to Colombo’s central business district has been identified for the pilot projects.

(The writer is Director, International Media, Presidential Secretariat, Colombo. The views are personal. He can be contacted at sugeeswara@gmail.com)

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