(NewsRadio); President Ranil Wickremesinghe has announced that Sri Lanka intends to apply for membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade bloc, as the country strives to rebuild its crisis-hit economy.
Addressing the Nikkei’s Future of Asia forum in Tokyo, President Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka would look to join RCEP “with the aim of achieving a higher level of economic liberalization.”
The grouping, known as the world’s largest free trade pact, encompasses 15 Asia-Pacific countries covering about 30% of the world’s gross domestic product and population. It includes China and Japan but not the United States.
Commenting on power struggle among major economies, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said, “The pressure on Asian countries to choose between the U.S. and China is being resisted by many. Many of us cannot make that choice because we have already made our choice.”
The President noted that everyone wants an Asia that can accommodate not only the West and allies who call for a free and open Indo-Pacific but also China’s Belt and Road Initiative and proponents of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
President Wickremesinghe added that he supports Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s vision of peace and rules-based prosperity, and that it was based on this that he decided to apply for RCEP membership.
The Head of State said Sri Lanka, “is committed to multi-layered connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.”
As for Sri Lanka’s financial crisis, which triggered a debt default last year, President Wickremesinghe said the country was “one of the first and worst” affected by the shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The President said following the crisis going to the International Monetary Fund for assistance was “the only option available” to Sri Lanka.
The government earlier this year secured a nearly USD 3 billion bailout, but continues to negotiate debt restructuring with key creditors including China and Japan.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe noted that the “Time is of the essence. We want this exercise [of debt restructuring] to succeed because our experience will enable more middle-income countries [like Sri Lanka] to utilize the IMF in ensuring multilateral coordination for debt relief.”
Recalling the state of the country at the height of the crisis last year, the President said, “Even if you had money, there was no food.”
The Head of State likened the recovery effort to a lifeboat. “It’s like the Titanic, when the ship is sinking and the boat is there. … So I asked everyone to come in. And everyone to help.”
With inputs from Nikkei Asia