By Sugeeswara Senadhira /Ceylon Today
Colombo, November 2: The 16-hour visit of US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo to Sri Lanka received international attention not because of its impact on US-Lanka relations, but because of verbal clashes erupting between Washington and Beijing arising from third-party references during bilateral discussions.
Pompeo, who was earlier in the limelight as the Chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), used every available opportunity to drag China into every discussion during the tour and attempted to draw a contrast between what China seeks in Sri Lanka as opposed to the manner in which the US operates and controversially labeled the Chinese Communist Party a predator.
“That’s quite a contrast to what China seeks. 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,” said the American State Secretary.
Infuriated China too, instead of issuing a statement from Beijing, thought it was fit to use the neutral Sri Lankan soil to retaliate, thus dragging Colombo too into an unnecessary controversy. The Chinese Embassy tweeted that China was not interested in Pompeo’s “Alien Vs Predator game invitation”. It tweeted back “Sorry Mr. Secretary @SecPompeo, we’re busy promoting #China-#SriLanka friendship and cooperation, not interested in your #Alien Vs Predator game invitation. The US can play two roles at the same time as always.”
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”.
The State Secretary also took a totally uncalled for dig at China while referring to the need for cooperation in defeating COVID-19. He emphasised that the pandemic came from Wuhan, China.
Sri Lanka has no interest at all in becoming a pawn in big-power rivalry. Sri Lanka is determined to keep a fine balance in its international affairs. Hence, it used the visit of the US Secretary to give the message in no uncertain terms that, for Sri Lanka ‘independence and sovereignty come first in foreign relations’.
Sri Lanka’s experienced Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena made no reference to China. In his joint press conference with Pompeo, Gunawardena reiterated that the country maintains a non-aligned and neutral foreign policy.
On the eve of the Pompeo’s visit the Chinese embassy accused Pompeo of trying to “coerce and bully” Sri Lanka with his visit. In the first week of October, Yang Jiechi, a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party Politburo member, pledged more economic help to Sri Lanka when he was in Colombo.
Apparently, anti-China comments have been a key theme of Pompeo’s Asian tour, which began in India and included Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia. He started his China-bashing in New Delhi last week. With Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Subramanian Jaishankar on their sides, the visiting US Ministers, Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark T Esper, launched a sharply worded attack on China, much to the satisfaction of the people of India. Esper recalled the June 2020 border clash between India and China and described it as “increasing aggression and destabilising activities by China”.
To emphasise the US solidarity with India, Pompeo visited the war memorial in New Delhi and said, “We went to honour the brave men and women of the Indian Armed forces who have sacrificed for the world’s largest democracy including 20 that were killed by the Chinese armed forces in the Galwan valley in June”.
External Affairs Minister Jaishankar said that “a multi-polar world must have a multi-polar Asia as its basis. Our national security convergences have obviously grown in a more multi-polar world.” He added that, “We are also committed to addressing together global issues ranging from maritime security to counter-terrorism. In US-India talks we also explored probable capacity-building and other joint cooperation activities in third countries, including our neighbourhood and beyond.”
While Pompeo and Esper made repeated references to China at every forum, two Indian ministers, Rajnath Singh and Subramanian Jaishankar refrained from making any direct reference to China. They simply stressed the need for ‘respecting and upholding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states’ without naming any country.
However, the US high-profile visit to India was a win-win one for both countries as it aimed to underscore the need for cooperation between New Delhi and Washington to check China’s inroads to the Indian Ocean region. The US and India signed the crucial military pact, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) last Tuesday. The BECA will help India to get real-time access to US geospatial intelligence that will enhance accuracy of automated systems and weapons like missiles and armed drones. It will also help access topographical and aeronautical data and advanced products which will aid navigation and targeting. This could be key to Air Force-to-Air Force cooperation between India and the US.
While New Delhi is very keen to enhance military cooperation with the US, Colombo has no desire whatsoever to get entangled in the conflict between regional or global powers. During the discussions President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made it clear to Pompeo that China assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the long-drawn fight against terrorists. He also clarified that it was an economic partnership and Sri Lanka was not caught in a debt trap as a result.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,” the President said.
President Rajapaksa made it very clear that Sri Lanka will always maintain a neutral stand in foreign policy and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs. What Sri Lanka needs is development assistance and foreign investments. Pompeo told media that he had talked with the President about the economic relationship. In a positive note he said, “brands like Coke and Oracle and IBM are here creating high-quality jobs. These American companies are the most reliable partners on the planet. They’re accountable to the law, they’re transparent, and they’re assets to the communities in which they operate”.
Pompeo emphasised that good governance, transparency in policy consistency will attract even more American investment. “Those principles are deeply consistent with Sri Lanka’s history, its heritage as the oldest democracy in Asia” he said acknowledging the potential for economic cooperation. Hopefully, there is a strong possibility to enhance economic cooperation between the two countries. However when the details are worked out and agreements finalised, it is essential to ensure there would be no cause to fear about Sri Lanka becoming an unwilling pawn in the chess game between regional and global powers.
(The picture at the top shows Mike Pompeo with Xi Jinping in happier times)