BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping today said he pays "high attention" to strengthening strategic ties with Sri Lanka, as Beijing beefed up plans to build a Maritime Silk Road project in India's backyard -- the Indian Ocean.
In a message to congratulate Sri Lanka on its 70th anniversary of Independence from British rule, Xi told his counterpart Maithripala Sirisena that China is willing to work with it for better development of strategic cooperative partnership between the two countries.
"I pay high attention to the development of China-Sri Lanka relations, and I am willing to make concerted efforts with President Sirisena to push the China-Sri Lanka strategic cooperative partnership of sincere mutual assistance and long-standing friendship to keep achieving greater development in the better interest of the two countries and its people," he said.
Xi also said that China and Sri Lanka have achieved "fruitful results" by their display of "pragmatic cooperation" within the framework of the joint construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR).
India has expressed reservations over MSR as it has security implications for it in Indian Ocean. MSR is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Proposed by China in 2013, the BRI aims to build trade and infrastructure networks connecting Asia with Europe and Africa based on ancient land and maritime trade routes enhancing China's global influence.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang too congratulated his Sri Lankan counterpart Ranil Wickramasinghe on the occasion.
Within the framework of the initiative on construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the MSR, China wishes to consolidate the traditional friendship with Sri Lanka, strengthen mutual political trust, deepen practical cooperation and push bilateral relations to a new level, he said in the message.
China has invested over USD eight billion in Sri Lanka over the years for various projects, including Hambantota port which it acquired on 99 years lease as a debt swap. It is also building the Colombo port city project, where Sri Lanka plans to establish an international financial city.
China is in the process of firming up its presence in the Indian Ocean with a string of ports which included Hambantota and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Beijing is also watching warily the developments in Maldives since it recently plunged into a crisis following a Supreme Court ruling which ordered the release of opposition leaders including former President Mohamed Nasheed.
The Supreme Court's decision has put a question mark on incumbent President Abdulla Yameen who is widely regarded as pro-China and signed several key deals including a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Beijing.