Pompeo arrives in Sri Lanka as US, China trade barbs

By Aanya Wipulasena

Colombo, Oct 27 (efe-epa).- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on an Asia trip, arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday evening as a war of words played out loud between the United States and China over Beijing’s financial assistance to the crisis-ridden island nation.

A State Department statement noted that Pompeo, during his visit, would highlight Sri Lanka’s “importance as an Indo-Pacific partner on security and economic issues.”

“He will also emphasize our commitment to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and encourage progress on governance and reconciliation priorities.”

Hours before Pompeo arrived in Colombo from India, China strongly objected to what it called the US coercing and bullying of Sri Lanka.

Dean Thompson, a senior State Department official, had earlier said the island must make “difficult but necessary choices” on its foreign policy, in a veiled reference to its relations with Beijing.

“We are firmly opposed to the United States taking the opportunity of the State Secretary’s visit to sow and interfere in China-Sri Lanka relations, and to coerce and bully Sri Lanka,” the Chinese embassy in Colombo said in a statement.

The embassy returned Thompson’s remarks and asked the US to “‘make difficult but necessary decisions’ and correct the ugly practices of arbitrarily interfering in other countries’ domestic and foreign affairs.”

China has given billions of dollars in loans to the Indian Ocean island nation over the last decade for infrastructure projects that include a seaport, airport, port-city, highways, and power stations.

China considers Sri Lanka a critical link in its ambitious belt and road initiative. But some critics say the Chinese-funded projects are financially non-viable and that Colombo was landing itself into a deep Chinese debt trap.

Pompeo’s Sri Lanka tour that precedes his stopover in the Maldives, another Indian Ocean island nation, is considered as part of the US attempts to balance the growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia.

But economists say that the visit by the top US diplomat has put Sri Lanka in a difficult situation, especially about Colombo’s relationship with Beijing.

“The current tensions between the US and China, and Sri Lanka becoming part of this geo-political tension or Sri Lanka pushed to take sides provides a worrying context,” political economist Ahilan Kadirgamar, who teaches at the University of Jaffna, told EFE.

Kadirgamar said Sri Lanka had suddenly fallen between a “rock and a hard place and has to maneuver through this with a non-alliance foreign policy, balance with the major powers at odds with each other.”

Sri Lanka is facing an economic crisis, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic that halted tourism, one of the biggest foreign currency earners, and affected exports and remittances of migrant workers.

For the next five years, the debt repayment is an estimated $4.5 billion each year. To control the crisis, the government needs a well-oiled strategy and external help.

China has been forthcoming to assist Sri Lanka.

Beijing gave Colombo a grant of $90 million shortly after a visit by China’s Communist Party Politburo member and a former foreign minister Yang Jiechi earlier this month.

But the Sri Lankan debt crisis, particularly in capital markets in the form of sovereign bonds or global borrowings, may force the island to look for more loans from the International Monetary Fund or foreign governments like China, India, the US, and Japan – the four big donors to Sri Lanka.

Kadirgamar said it was not so easy.

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