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Relations with Japan moving in the right direction

Monday, 31 July 2023 00:00 –      – 21

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While there were many foreign relations failures in the short-lived Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, none was more glaring and damaging than the way relations with Japan was handled. It has been an upward task for the current administration led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to restore this “all weather” friendship from the nadir it reached in 2020-2022. However, it is encouraging that there seems to be some movement in this regard and small, yet tangible signals of improvement in relations.

This week Japan’s Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa visited Sri Lanka, the first such high-level visit from the country since Wickremesinghe became president. It comes in the wake of the President visiting Japan twice and engaging with political leaders. It is reported that during the current visit of the foreign minister, several Japanese-funded projects such as the Light Rail Transit (LRT), the East Terminal of the Colombo Port, the Kandy Development Plan, Central Highway, and the expansion of the Bandaranaike International Airport are to be discussed.

Japan has been Sri Lanka’s most reliable development partner since its independence. The projects it had implemented in the country are standing monuments to that partnership. During the recent economic crisis Japan extended its support in the debt restructuring process and continued assistance in the financial sector.

The deterioration of relations with Japan during the Gotabaya administration were precipitated by the cancellation of several development projects that would have brought in significant economic benefit to the country. The $ 1.5 billion light rail train project which was funded on a soft loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the tri-partite development project of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port’s South Harbour involving Japan and India were among the most significant among these.

President Wickremesinghe has a tall task in convincing his Japanese counterparts that his administration is truly different to his predecessor. While he may have a better understanding of international geo-politics, President Wickremesinghe is very much a continuation of the previous regime with the same individuals running affairs. The very individuals who were at the forefront at devastating this critical relationship still hold office, some in cabinet, some as ambassadors and some even as heads of Government affiliated think tanks.

One of the key areas of discussion between the President and the visiting Japanese foreign minister has been on investments. In this regard it would be necessary for the current administration to convince investors and international partners that there is a willingness to address allegations of corruption, especially with foreign funded projects. Sri Lanka has built a reputation of wastage and corruption in recent years in dealing with foreign funded mega projects. Some of these projects which have resulted in debt traps are demonstrated as cautionary tales for developing countries to avoid.

Allegations had been made during this administration concerning a minister seeking bribes in a Japan-funded project in the aviation sector. That minister remains in his seat while the development project has been stalled. Such examples demonstrate the necessity to go beyond rhetoric and make tangible changes that could harness the true potential of foreign investments, especially with friendly nations such as Japan.

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