China is a predator, Pompeo tells Sri Lanka

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

October 28, 2020 02:29 pm | Updated 10:41 pm IST - Colombo

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, before his meeting with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapksa in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Oct. 28, 2020.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, before his meeting with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapksa in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Oct. 28, 2020.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday slammed China for operating as a “predator” in Sri Lanka, while the U.S. came as a “friend”. He made the remark during his visit to Colombo, amid a heightening geopolitical contest playing out in the island nation.


“We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way, we come as a friend, and as a partner,” Mr. Pompeo told a media conference in Colombo, winding up his 12-hour trip, the second stop on his four-nation tour spanning India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia.


The Chinese Embassy in Colombo was quick to respond to Mr. Pompeo’s attack. “Sorry Mr. Secretary @SecPompeo, we’re busy promoting #China-#SriLanka friendship and cooperation, not interested in your #AlienVsPredator game invitation. The US can play two roles at the same time as always,” the Embassy said in a tweet from its handle.

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The U.S.’s growing concern over China in the region — which dominated the Quadrilateral dialogue, or ‘Quad’ Foreign Ministers’ meet in Tokyo early October — appears to have figured prominently in Mr. Pompeo’s meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was also a U.S. citizen earlier, until he gave it up last year to contest polls in Sri Lanka. An official media release from the President’s office said Mr. Rajapaksa, in his meeting with Secretary Pompeo, underscored Beijing’s crucial assistance to Colombo in the post-war years and reiterated that Sri Lanka is “not caught in a debt trap”, in addition to welcoming more American investment.


Chinese delegation


It was in line with his message a top Chinese delegation visiting Colombo earlier this month. Pledging to pursue a China-style development model, Mr. Rajapaksa told the delegation from Beijing that he wished to disprove the prevalent “debt trap” analysis of Sri Lanka’s borrowings — totalling over $5 billion — from the Asian giant.

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Further, President Rajapaksa in his meeting with Secretary Pompeo “stressed that he is not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation in maintaining foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be,” his office said in the statement.


While India and China’s competing strategic interests in Sri Lanka are well known, the tension between the U.S. and China escalated around Mr. Pompeo’s visit, even before the open diplomatic clash on Wednesday. Responding to U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dean Thompson’s remarks ahead of Mr. Pompeo’s visit, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo issued a statement, saying the U.S. was using the visit to “interfere in China-Sri Lanka relations, and to coerce and bully Sri Lanka”.


Reliance on Beijing


Even as government critics flag the Rajapaksa administration's growing reliance on China for economic help — a $500 million Chinese loan was sanctioned in March and Colombo is negotiating another $700 million loan — the Sri Lankan President told Mr. Pompeo that Colombo’s foreign policy was “based on neutrality”. Sri Lanka, over the last decade, has borrowed heavily from bilateral partners and multilateral agencies, and is due to repay $4.5 billion next year.

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While Chinese loans account for 10% of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt, international sovereign bonds — in which U.S. is a key investor — account for nearly 40%. Although Sri Lanka, particularly the Rajapaksa camp, has resisted the U.S.’s position on its human rights record, the U.S. remains Sri Lanka’s single largest export market.


In his remarks to the press, Mr. Pompeo said the State Department has offered “substantial counter-terrorism assistance” to help Sri Lankans bring those behind the Easter terror bombings to justice. “These Easter Sunday attacks represent the kind of sectarianism that Sri Lankans are ready to leave behind forever.”


Further, referring to President Rajapaksa’s “victory speech” following his big election win last year, stating he is President of all citizens, not of only those who voted for him, Mr. Pompeo said the U.S. was “counting on” those words to hold true. “We fully expect that Sri Lanka will fulfil its pledges to take meaningful, concrete steps to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation,” he said.

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