MANILA - Looking to up its influence in the region, China is using its growing financial clout to fund infrastructure development throughout Asia.
"This is a transit hub for automobile trade," said a port official at Hambantota, a southern port town in Sri Lanka. Looking down from a harbor side building, 3,000 or so vehicles could be seen waiting to be loaded onto a ship. "All those cars will be shipped to the Middle East and Africa," the official explained.
The town, which was founded on fishing and salt farming, occupies a strategic location in the Indian Ocean, as a key sea lane lies off its coast. Hambantota was devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which left its port decimated. But modern facilities are now going up, with loans from the Chinese government covering 85% of the $1.3 billion redevelopment cost.
Beijing has been assisting in port development projects in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well. It is all part of China's plan to build a shipping network -- what it calls a "pearl necklace" -- to enable it to go toe-to-toe with India, its major rival in Asia.
"Let's deepen our ties," Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said during a meeting with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in November in Myanmar. Describing the past 10 years as a "golden decade" for China-ASEAN relations, Li told the leaders that he wants to make the next 10 years a "diamond decade."
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