Colombo: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Tuesday that Colombo was seeking to expand its economic and trade ties with China.

In an interview with Xinhua news agency ahead of his four-day official visit to China starting on Wednesday, Wickremesinghe said he would be looking to set up a long-term economic and investment relationship with Beijing.

“Today, China has become one of the leading economic powers of the world. China has made many investments in Sri Lanka and it has also given loans and grants,” Wickremesinghe said.

The purpose of his visit, according to the prime minister, was to boost economic relations between Sri Lanka and China and discuss a bilateral Free Trade Agreement.

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“We like to have more emphasis on Chinese private investments into Sri Lanka and there are some other economic issues such as future loans that I hope to discuss,” he said.

The visit to China next week will be Wickremesinghe’s first since winning a parliamentary election in August last year.

His United National Party (UNP) defeated the former United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by former president Mahinda Rajapakse. The government led by President Maithripala Sirisena wants to transform Sri Lanka into South Asia’s international hub.

Sri Lanka’s largest foreign investment, the Colombo Port City Project, funded by China, was recently given the green light to resume after it was suspended by the government in March 2015 due to environmental concerns.

Wickremesinghe said the project will now be granted a special status as a unique financial and business district of Sri Lanka and will be included in the government’s mega development plan.

“The Port City will become a special financial and business district of Sri Lanka which will have its own laws. Of course the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka must have the final say,” he said.

There will be a separate financial and legal system operating in the Port City “where people can come and transact business internationally,” he said.

Sri Lanka is in talks with the Chinese government in setting up a special economic zone in Hambantota in the country’s south with Chinese investments.

With the Mattala Airport and the Hambantota port in the area, Sri Lanka hopes to attract Chinese companies that have experience in operating airports and harbours, Wickremesinghe said.

“Once it is set, it will become one major economic zone as we plan to transform Hambantota into the second largest economic area in Sri Lanka.”

In addition, China has extended its cooperation with Sri Lanka in the government’s western megapolis development plan and the integrated development plan in Pollonnaruwa in the North Central province, he added.

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