China is “prioritising” the extension of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) to Sri Lanka, the country’s Special Envoy told President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday, in an indication that China is looking to scale up the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in South Asia.  

Paying a courtesy call on the Sri Lankan President, Special envoy of the Chinese President, State councillor Shen Yiqin, said China is prioritising the extension of the Corridor to the island nation, according to a press statement issued by Wickremesinghe’s office on Monday. “Additionally, both parties agreed to expedite the implementation of the China-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement,” the statement said.   

The CMEC is the newest of the six land corridors under the BRI and has assumed prominence in place of the Bangladesh China India Myanmar (BCIM) corridor which has largely stalled. India and Bhutan are the only countries in South Asia that have stayed out of the BRI and China’s more recent Global Development Initiative, which Sri Lanka has also backed. Wickremesinghe noted that countries such as Sri Lanka, which are participants in the BRI, “are prepared to embark on the second phase of the initiative, which is expected to make a more substantial economic contribution.” 

Joint statement

Shen is in Sri Lanka after participating in President Mohamed Muizzu’s inaugural ceremony in neighbouring Maldives on November 17. Her visit comes a month after President Wickremesinghe met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, on the sidelines of the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. A joint statement issued by the two governments at the time said Sri Lanka reiterated it would “continue to actively participate” in the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China.  

In Monday’s meeting, President Wickremesinghe “expressed gratitude for China’s support to Sri Lanka, notably acknowledging their assistance in the country’s debt restructuring programme,” his office said.  

Sri Lanka is attempting to finalise a debt treatment plan with its official creditors, so it can receive the second tranche of the International Monetary Fund’s nearly $3 billion package for economic recovery, following last year’s crisis. China has decided to stay out of the official creditors’ platform and remains an observer in deliberations with India and Paris Club members, including Japan, that have sought creditor parity. Last month, the IMF said that securing an agreement with official creditors is a “critical next step” for Sri Lanka.