US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that America’s vision on Sri Lanka is a stark contrast from that of “predator” China as he met the island nation’s leadership and underscored Washington’s commitment to its sovereignty and security.
Addressing a presser with his Sri Lankan counterpart following bilateral talks, Pompeo said that both the United States and Sri Lanka have a shared vision on democratic principles, PTI reported.
“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.
Pompeo became the highest-ranking official of the President Donald Trump-led administration to visit Sri Lanka. He said the US and Sri Lanka shared a vision for democracy to build a relationship and the “freedom to hold democratic elections”.
While stressing on the importance of freedom of navigation, Pompeo said US companies are far superior to their Chinese counterparts who are making 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," Pompeo said.
He also mentioned he discussed the "(COVID-19) pandemic that came from Wuhan, China" during the talks with Sri Lankan leaders.
He further stated he held "wide-ranging discussions" on 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," Pompeo said.
He visited the St Anthony's Church in north Colombo, one of the churches devastated by last year's deadly Easter Sunday attacks.
“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.