By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, October 28: The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, aggressively pushed the Trump Administration’s anti-China agenda in his talks with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena here on Wednesday. But the Sri Lankan leaders refused to fall in line and instead pressed for US investments and economic cooperation.
The President told Pompeo that he is not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation for foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be, a press release from the President’s Office said.
Noting that China had assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the separatist war, the President asserted that Sri Lanka is not caught in a debt trap as a result.
Investments Not Loans
What Sri Lanka wants is not obtaining loans continuously but to achieve a high level of economic growth by attracting more foreign investments, the President said. “We have already begun to remove bureaucratic red tape 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”, Gotabaya stressed.
In response, Pompeo said that the US would continue to work closely with Sri Lanka in achieving a high level of economic development and that priority will be given to promote US investments in the island. Tourism is a key sector that contributes to employment and income generation, he noted and said that the US is ready to give a helping hand to the development of this area under a carefully prepared action plan.
With China upper most in his mind, it appears that the controversial (and now stalled) Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) was not discussed. Asked about the MCC in his interview to Rupavahini TV, Pompeo said that it was up to the Sri Lankan government to decide on it, a far cry from the earlier US stand. The other controversial US demand that Sri Lanka sign the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was apparently not even discussed as Sri Lanka had rejected it earlier on.
At the press conference with Lankan Foreign Minister Gunawardena, Pompeo concentrated on vilifying China even calling the Chinese Communist Party a “predator”. He said that the US wants the people of Sri Lanka to be successful and sustained in development, “but China has a very different vision.”
“The US seeks to strengthen partnership with democratic, peaceful, prosperous, and fully sovereign Sri Lanka,” Pompeo said. “A strong sovereign Sri Lanka is a powerful strategic partner for the US on the world stage. It can be a beacon for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he added.
However, this is quite a contrast from what China seeks, he pointed out. “We see, from bad deals, violations of sovereignty, and lawlessness on the land and sea that the China Communist Party, as a predator. And the US comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner,” he claimed.
Ethnic Relations and Human Rights
Turning to the locally sensitive issue of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka, Pompeo said that the US “fully expects” Sri Lanka to fulfill its pledges to take meaningful, concrete steps to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation.
On the other touchy issue of human rights he said: “The US wants people of all faiths to live together in a peaceful nation where their Human Rights are respected. In his victory speech last year President Rajapaksa stated that he is the president of all citizens not of only those who voted for him. As our two nations move forward the United States is counting on those words to hold true.”
These remarks are unlikely to go down well with the majority Sinhala community in Sri Lanka which believes that they amount to unduly interfering in the internal affairs of an independent country which has its own ways of ensuring ethnic justice and harmony.
On economic ties, Pompeo said that “great American companies” such as Coca-Cola and IBM are in Sri Lanka and claimed that they are the “most reliable partners on the planet as they are accountable to the law, transparent, and are assets to the communities in which they operate.”
“Good governance, transparency, policy consistency will attract even more American investments as those principles are deeply consistent with Sri Lanka’s history, its heritage as the oldest democracy in Asia,” he said. He was suggesting that democratic Sri Lanka should not entertain investments from dictatorial and lawless China ruled by the Communist. a “predator”.
The US wants Sri Lanka to have sovereignty and independence, be successful, and have sustainable development and that the “US as a friend and partner offers just exactly that,” the Secretary of State said.
The US and Sri Lanka have a “shared vision as democratic nations for free and open fishing lanes, the capacity to trade, for people to travel to wherever they want to go. These are the visions of the people of Sri Lanka share with the US.” However, the Chinese have a very different vision, he added.
“We want to make sure that the People of Sri Lanka have the capacity to execute their sovereign rights to remain independent, to have the freedom to hold the elections like that you all have held. Those are the visions that democracies work on together, those are the visions that we share,” he emphasized.
Elucidating Sri Lanka’s position, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stated that Sri Lanka being a “sovereign, free, and independent nation, will maintain a neutral, non-aligned and friendly foreign policy.”
Referring to the Presidential and Parliamentary elections recently held in Sri Lanka, Gunawardena said that “they reflect the people’s mandate to safeguard the unitary state, sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security, economic progress, presenting a clear opportunity for all our friendly nations, especially the United States to join in our forward journey for a stable, secure country with economic advancement.”
Here was a hint that Sri Lanka’s decisions on issues would be determined by its commitment to the principles stated above and mandated by the elections. The government cannot deviate from them.
Further Gunwawardena said: “Sri Lanka will be conscious of the opportunities and responsibilities that come with its strategic location. We see the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation in our seas and air space and also protecting the sea lines of communication and undersea cables. We believe, all countries should adhere to and respect international law including the UN convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS).”
The reference to UNCLOS is interesting inasmuch as the US is still to ratify UNCLOS although it is constantly accusing China of having scant respect for “rule-based” navigation.
Scope For US-Lanka Cooperation
On US-Lanka economic cooperation, Gunawardena said: “The U.S. remains Sri Lanka’s largest single markets with exports of USD 3.1 billion in 2019 and even the present context of Covid-19 related market downturn remains in a smaller position with USD 1.1 billion for the first half of this year. The U.S. has been a friend and assisting Sri Lanka in times of difficulty and we remain deeply grateful for your support.”
The Foreign Minister expressed his gratitude to the US for extending assistance to Sri Lanka following the tsunami disaster in 2004. He also recalled the assistance rendered by it in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks on April 21, 2019, as well as during Covid-19 outbreak.
“I also extend my sincere thanks and appreciation once again for proscribing the LTTE terrorist organization even before the 9/11 attack and up to now,” the Lankan Minister added.
Trade and Investment Pact
In furtherance of making the bilateral relations more robust, the two countries have agreed to convene the next session of US-Sri Lanka partnership dialogue in early 2021, Gunawardena said. The joint council for the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement will also be convened on the earliest possible timeframe.
Gunawardena sought broadening the bilateral engagement in areas such as ICT, cyber-security, agriculture, science-technology, innovations, trade & investments, business and climate change.
(The featured image at the top shows President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador Alaina Tiplitz)