Colombo, Oct 28: America’s vision on Sri Lanka is “very different” from that of “predator” China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said here on Wednesday as he met the island nation’s top leadership and reaffirmed US’ commitment to its sovereignty and security.
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,” Pompeo told reporters as he wrapped up his two-day visit, the second stop on a four-nation tour.
“The Chinese Communist Party is a predator. The US comes in a different way, we come as a friend,” he said in response to a question.
Pompeo, who became the Trump administration’s highest ranking official to visit Colombo, said 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, he 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 earlier called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and discussed a range of bilateral issues, including economic partnership based on transparent trade and investment, COVID-19 as well as a shared commitment to democratic freedoms.
Rajapaksa told Pompeo that China assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the separatist war. The President reiterated that Sri Lanka was not caught in a debt trap as a result, according to a press release issued by his office here.
He said what Sri Lanka wants is not obtaining loans continually, but to achieve a high level economic growth by attracting more foreign investments.
“We have already begun to remove bureaucratic red tapes that hinder foreign investment. Sri Lanka is a country that possesses necessary factors to achieve a high agricultural development. Our agriculture sector should be modernized. Scientific research should be conducted in order to reach this goal. We expect your assistance towards this end,” Rajapaksa stressed.
He said Sri Lanka will always maintain a neutral stand in foreign policy and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs.
Pompeo later visited the St Anthony’s Church in north Colombo, one of the three churches devastated by the horrific Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, and paid tributes to the victims of the deadly terror strikes that killed 258 people, including five Americans.
“We stand with the Sri Lankan people and the world to defeat violent extremism and bring perpetrators to justice,” Pompeo said.
Meanwhile in Beijing, replying to a question about Pompeo’s remarks about the Chinese Communist Party, 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,” he added.
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 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 terror attacks and later by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.