Addressing a joint press conference with his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena after bilateral talks, the top US diplomat said that the US and Sri Lanka shared a democratic vision.
“Indeed, a strong sovereign Sri Lanka is a positive partner on the world stage. It can be a beacon for a free Indo-Pacific. “The Chinese Communist Party is a predator. The US comes in a different way, we come as a friend,” Pompeo said in response to a question.
Pompeo, who became the Trump administration’s highest ranking official to visit Sri Lanka, said that the US and Sri Lanka shared a vision for democracy to build a relationship and the “freedom to hold democratic elections”. Emphasising on the need for the freedom of navigation, the Secretary of State said that the US businesses are superior over the Chinese companies who are making big moves in Sri Lanka.
“These American companies are the most reliable partners on the planet. They are liable to the law, transparency. The US wants to increase its relationship with a democratic and fully independent Sri Lanka,” he said. He said that he had discussed with Sri Lankan leaders “the (COVID-19) pandemic that came from Wuhan, China”.
Pompeo said that he held “wide ranging discussions about our security operations. Sri Lankan officers receiving training in the US. I am also proud that the US donated two coast guard cutters to the Navy”. He visited the St Anthony's Church in north Colombo, one of the churches devastated by last year's deadly Easter Sunday attacks.
“Today, I laid a wreath at the Shrine of St. Anthony, one of the sites of the 2019 #EasterAttacks which killed and injured hundreds of innocent people. We stand with the Sri Lankan people and the world to defeat violent extremism and bring perpetrators to justice. #USwithSL,” Pompeo tweeted. “Five Americans were killed. The US has offered substantial counterterrorism assistance to help bring the killers of Americans and their own people to justice.
“Let us all stand together shoulder-to-shoulder and let’s do even more together on the strength of our partnership armed by democratic values,” Pompeo said. Gunawardena said that Sri Lanka would remain a non-aligned nation and it welcomes visits by the US officials.
Meanwhile in Beijing, replying to a question about Pompeo’s remarks about the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that “forcing small and medium sized countries to pick sides is a habitual behaviour of certain US politicians”. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry official has published an article saying that it will handle its foreign relations in accordance with their people’s will and their laws, instead of being guided by any foreigners, he noted.
“Sri Lanka and China are traditional friendly neighbours. We have been conducting friendly cooperation on the basis of equal footed negotiations and mutual benefit which brings tangible benefits to the two countries’ people. “This will never be altered by any smears or slanders by other people or other countries. We will work with Sri Lanka to expand and deepen our strategic cooperative partnership to bring more benefits for our peoples, and to contribute to the regional peace, stability and development,” the spokesperson added.
Pompeo, in a tweet after he arrived here on Tuesday, said: “I’m excited to be here in Colombo. I’m proud of the work @USEmbSL does to strengthen our ties with the government, businesses, and people of Sri Lanka and look forward to expanding on those efforts during my visit. #USwithSL”. He was in India along with Defence Secretary Mark T Esper for the third edition of the US-India 2+2 dialogue.
Pompeo's visit comes in the backdrop of China's increasing forays in Sri Lanka. The Chinese military has been flexing its muscles in the strategically vital Indo-Pacific region and is also engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Early this month, India, the US, Japan and Australia agreed to step up coordination in creating a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Pompeo's visit is being seen here as part of the US effort to have Sri Lanka on its side vis-a-vis China. Two weeks ago, a high-powered Chinese delegation led by ruling Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi visited Colombo. Just a day before Pompeo's visit, the Chinese Embassy accused the US of interfering in its ties with Sri Lanka.
China is one of the biggest investors in various infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. But there has been criticism, both locally and internationally, and growing concerns that China has lured Sri Lanka into a debt trap. The previous Maithripala Sirisena government had entered into a 99-year lease with China in 2017 as a settlement of its debt by way of equity.
Sri Lanka's economy, especially the tourism sector, has been hit hard since last year - initially by the Easter Sunday attacks, which killed over 250 people and later by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Reserve Bank of India in July this year extended a USD 400 million currency swap facility to Sri Lanka to boost the nation's draining foreign exchange reserves due to the coronavirus pandemic. The currency swap arrangement will remain available till November 2022.