(Recasts, adds Chinese Foreign Ministry comment)
BEIJING Feb 13 China and Sri Lanka could sign a
free trade agreement by the end of the year, state news agency
Xinhua cited Sri Lanka's foreign minister as saying, a move that
will help cement Colombo's growing economic and diplomatic ties
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, who is on a
four-day visit to China, said "the feasibility study is on the
verge of completion".
Peiris told Xinhua in an interview published late on
Wednesday it would be the most significant bilateral achievement
since the 1952 Rubber-Rice Pact, when rubber and rice was
bartered between China and Sri Lanka.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told
reporters on Thursday that the two countries "are currently
undertaking feasibility studies and look forward to starting the
negotiations at an early date".
China has signed a series of free trade agreements, mostly
with smaller economies like New Zealand, Switzerland and
Iceland, though it is negotiating more significant ones with
Australia, South Korea and Japan.
China has increasingly tight ties with Sri Lanka, funding
airports, roads, railways and ports. Those ties have unsettled
India, traditionally Sri Lanka's closest economic partner.
Hua added that China was also seeking greater maritime
cooperation with Sri Lanka, to build what she called a
"21st-century Maritime Silk Road".
"Our cooperation will range from maritime connectivity, the
economy, technology, rescue and environmental protection to
disaster mitigation and fishery," she said, adding that other
countries were welcome to join the initiative.
The island of 21 million people just off India's southern
tip is at the forefront of competition between Asian giants
China and India.
China has consistently defended Sri Lanka's rights record,
which came under fire at a Commonwealth summit in November,
saying Colombo had made big strides in promoting human rights
and achieving national reconciliation over the years.
On Tuesday, China's Foreign Minister offered support for Sri
Lanka after the United States said it would table a U.N.
resolution against Colombo over its human rights record.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government, which finally
crushed a 26-year rebellion by ethnic minority Tamil separatists
in 2009, has rejected calls for an international inquiry into
atrocities during the civil war.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul
Tait and Ron Popeski)