by Jamila Najmuddin
COLOMBO, Jan. 3 (Xinhua) -- Sri Lanka is seeking to further cement its relations with China in the year ahead, a senior government minister told Xinhua here recently.
A high-level delegation led by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is expected to visit China this year amid efforts to strengthen ties, said the minister, who asked not to be named.
Wickremesinghe's visit will come at a time when Sri Lanka resumes all its development projects which were suspended by his government earlier last year.
The projects include a multi-billion-dollar port city project funded by China in the capital city and other leisure facilities.
"During the visit, several key areas are expected to be discussed by both sides including the resumption of the suspended projects. China is a key partner for Sri Lanka and this government is committed to further boosting ties," the minister said.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who defeated former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in a presidential election in January last year, himself visited China in March -- his second official visit since winning the presidency.
Although there were immediate reports that relations between the two countries soured with the suspension of the Chinese-backed projects, Sirisena has expressed his will to seek further improved ties between the two countries.
With suspended projects and Sri Lanka's economy not performing as expected due to political instability with the parliamentary election in August 2015, Sri Lanka is hoping that more cooperation with China would give its economy a much-needed boost in the year ahead.
The country's tourism industry which suffered a severe blow following decades of conflict, became the number one foreign exchange earner, largely due to the increase in Chinese and Indian tourists.
By the end of last year, China became the number one market for the most number of tourist arrivals, with the government vowing to do more in 2016 to attract a larger crowd.
"We want more Chinese tourists coming. In 2016, we want to double the number of tourists coming here," said senior advisor to the tourism minister, Felix Srimal Rodrigo.
With an influx of Chinese tourists, the Sri Lankan government is presently negotiating with the Chinese government to expand air links between the two countries.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has also announced that it would resume all suspended projects in Sri Lanka by early this year.
In December, Sri Lanka's Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake said that the government was happy with the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for the Colombo Port City project and therefore had cleared the deck for the project to continue. The absence of a proper EIA was cited as a major reason for pulling the 1.4 billion U.S. dollars project on hold.
Late last year, the government also announced that it wanted to attract more Chinese investment and expressed willingness to create a special hub in the south of the island nation for this purpose. According to statistics from the Central Bank, so far, China is Sri Lanka's biggest contributor of foreign direct investments.
With many challenges lying ahead for Sirisena, who will complete one year in power this month, Sri Lanka is looking to strong ties with China and fresh projects to achieving the government's vision of developing the nation in the coming years.