China on Thursday said that it wants Sri Lanka to be a close partner in building a new maritime route to bring the two countries closer and promote marine activities, including cooperating in rescue operations in the Indian Ocean region.
China's top leadership proposed the new maritime cooperation, named '21st century maritime silk road' to the visiting Lankan foreign minister GL Peiris and suggested that both countries work towards implementing the idea.
The maritime plan comes soon after China announced its full support for Sri Lanka, as the US mulls a third resolution on the country's human rights record to be presented before the United Nations Human Rights Council in March.
Giving details of the maritime plan, foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Thursday said: "We will enhance cooperation in this regard so that we can achieve common prosperity and development and win-win cooperation."
"Our countries can discuss how to carry out maritime connectivity, marine economy, fisheries, disaster prevention and mitigation as well as maritime rescue assistance."
The new maritime cooperation is still on the discussion board but it potentially does clear the deck further for tighter ties between Beijing and Colombo.
And whether Sino-Sri Lankan ties are being built at the cost of the island nation' relations with India could be a matter of debate, it does show that China's influence in the region is on the path of sharp rise.
"This initiative is just an idea for cooperation. It is an open ended platform…In this end China adopts an open attitude. We also hope to see good suggestions from other countries so as to substantiate this idea of cooperation," Hua said.
China is the island nation's biggest loan provider and has already pumped in nearly $4 billion through various infrastructure projects.
"Since Sri Lanka ended a 30-year civil war in 2009, China emerged as the island nation's largest loan provider, funding massive infrastructure projects in highways, railways, coal power plants, airports and harbors that are estimated to be worth around 4 billion US dollars," state-run Xinhua news agency said in a report on Peiris's visit.
The Sri Lankan foreign minister has met vice-president Li Yuanchow and foreign minister Wang Yi.
China, for one, is funding and building the already operational prestigious Hambantota port in the home constituency of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
India too is involved in a number of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka---Indo-Lanka bilateral trade stood at over $5 billion last year---but unlike China it is bogged down by domestic politics in Tamil Nadu and the burden of its direct interference in the country's long ethnic civil war.
And if India signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Sri Lanka in 2000 and saw a surge in trade, China too is planning to catch up.
"The (proposed China-Lanka) FTA will give a boost to business cooperation between our two countries. Currently our two sides are doing feasibility study of the FTA. We will accelerate the process so as to launch the negotiations of FTA as soon as possible," Hua said on Thursday.