HONG KONG -- Calling a halt to China's $1.34 billion port development project in Colombo is not anti-Chinese but actually part of a fight against corruption, Sri Lanka's Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake told the Nikkei Asian Review on Friday.
Karunanayake said his country's long and friendly relations with China have not been strained even though the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena is widely perceived to be shifting away from Sri Lanka's earlier pro-China policy.
Karunanayake was present at a meeting between President Sirisena and President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday. He said the Sri Lankan visit cemented closeness between the two nations and "obviated any doubts that were there".
As for the port project, the president told his counterpart in China, "We are doing what you are doing." Sirisena said his government is working resolutely for "anti-corruption, good governance, and accountability", and has election pledges to honor. He also noted China's own anti-corruption drive under President Xi.
According to Karunanayake, Xi responded that the "warm relationship should be pursued [based] on internal promises and laws".
Karunanayake said the specific issue relating to the port project is whether the project has "complied with the law", and the halt was not a case of targeting China.
"Even if it is from the Maldives or America, it will be the same," he said, observing that the governments of both China and Sri Lanka are "clean and forthcoming".
"It is the Chinese company that dealt with the previous government that has the question of corruption," he said.
One of the very first things Sirisena did after his inauguration in January was to halt the large and symbolically important port project. He also chose India for his first official visit overseas, prompting many to believe that Sri Lanka's new regime is distancing itself from China and moving closer to India.
Karunanayake disputed this idea, claiming that the goal is for China, India and Sri Lanka to work closely together in a "tripartite" relationship.
Sri Lanka has already committed to being a founding member of the forthcoming Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiated by China.
Sirisena told Xi that Sri Lanka wants "good governance, accountability, transparency and an even playing field for all" in regard to the operation of the new regional bank.