Wednesday, criticized China as a “predator” that is exploiting island nations of the Indian Ocean in the guise of promoting development.
Speaking to the press in Colombo alongside Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Pompeo drew a sharp contrast between U.S. intentions and those of China.
He said that while Washington “seeks to strengthen our partnership with democratic, peaceful, prosperous, and fully sovereign Sri Lanka,” the Chinese “have a very different vision.”
China’s approach, Pompeo asserted, is characterized by “bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea.”
“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,” he said.
Ahead of Pompeo’s visit, the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka accused Washington of taking the opportunity of Pompeo’s visit “to sow and interfere in China-Sri Lanka relations, and to coerce and bully Sri Lanka.”
U.S. officials have warned countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives, which Pompeo visited later Wednesday, of the risks they face when they fall into “debt traps” caused by China’s “predatory lending.”
Pompeo also met with Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who according to the President’s Office stressed that he is “not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation in maintaining foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be.”
“Noting that China assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the separatist war, President reiterated that Sri Lanka not caught in a debt trap as a result,” the office said in a press statement.
Often cited is an alleged debt-for-equity swap involving the strategic Hambantota Port, now a Chinese-financed commercial shipping center and industrial zone in southern Sri Lanka.
Struggling to make payments on Chinese debt the government had taken on, it forged 2017 deal with China in which it handed over majority control of the Chinese-built deep sea port and investment zone on a 99-year lease for over $1 billion.
The transfer gave China control of territory off the shores of rival India and a strategic foothold near the main shipping route from Asia to Europe, while concerns were raised that China might someday use the port as a naval base.
During Pompeo’s visit to the Maldives, the first by a secretary of state in nearly two decades, he met with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and announced plans to open a U.S. embassy in the capital Male.
Pompeo later told reporters that he and his counterpart Abdulla Shahid discussed growing defense cooperation between the two countries, among other issues.
“Conversations about security in the Maldives and other island nations I’ve been to…have taken on new importance as the Chinese Communist Party continues its lawless and threatening behavior,” he said, citing the People’s Liberation Army’s “illegal militarization of the South China Sea” as an example.
He also accused China of encroaching into its neighbors’ economic zones, trashing the environment, and failing to rein in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin earlier Wednesday blasted the Indo-Pacific strategy proposed by the United States in part to curb Chinese expansionism in Asia, saying it “trumpets the outdated Cold-War mindset, confrontation between blocs and geopolitical rivalry.”
“What it upholds is nothing but the dominating role of the United States and its hegemonic system. We urge certain U.S. politicians to reject the Cold-War and zero-sum game mentality, and stop making erroneous moves like hyping up the so-called “China threat”, sowing discord between regional countries, and undercutting regional peace and stability,” he said at a regularly scheduled press briefing in Beijing.