U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday brought the Trump administration’s anti-China campaign to Indian Ocean islands considered particularly at risk for what American officials allege is Chinese exploitation.
Pompeo is visiting Sri Lanka and the Maldives to press the two countries to be on guard against potential predatory lending and investment by China. He was making the case less than a week before the American election in which President Donald Trump is seeking to paint his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, as weak on China.
Even before Pompeo arrived in Sri Lanka, China had fired back at the U.S. message, accusing Washington of bullying smaller nations.
In Sri Lanka, the Maldives and then in Indonesia on Thursday, Pompeo plans to press each nation to push back against increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by development and infrastructure projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients.
Ahead of Pompeo’s arrival in Colombo, the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced his visit, accusing one of his top aides of making unacceptable threats against the country. In those comments, the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia, Dean Thompson, warned Sri Lanka of the dangers of allowing China to get a foothold on the island.
“We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices,” he said. “We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity, and we stand ready to partner with Sri Lanka for its economic development and growth.”
The Chinese Embassy said the comments were a blatant violation of diplomatic protocols and also chided the U.S. for organizing Pompeo’s 24-hour visit and imposing a major logistical burden on the country, which. like much of the rest of the world is in the midst of a spiraling surge in coronavirus cases.
“Does this approach truly prove your respect to the host country? Is it helpful to local epidemic prevention and control? Is it in the interests of the Sri Lankan people?” the embassy said in a statement.
The U.S.-China tug-of-war plays out against concerns that the Sri Lankan government is backsliding on democratic reforms. Last week, Parliament by a large majority approved a constitutional amendment concentrating powers under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and reversing efforts a previous government had made to curb authoritarianism.
With the change, Rajapaksa will be able to hold ministries, as well as appoint and sack ministers. He will also be the appointing authority of the elections, public service, police, human rights, bribery or corruption investigation commissions.
Those commissions were perceived as independent with a constitutional council comprising of lawmakers from different political parties and civil personalities making the appointments. With the amendment, the constitutional council was abolished for a parliamentary council whose observations the president is not bound to implement.
Rajapaksa will also be able to dissolve Parliament after two years and six months, instead of six months before its five-year term ends. And, he was able to push through a clause that lifted a ban on dual citizens holding political office, a move that will pave the way for a sibling who is a U.S. citizen to enter Parliament, further strengthening his family’s hold on political power.
Currently, Rajapaksa’s older brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is prime minister. Another older brother and three nephews are also lawmakers — three of them ministers.
Sri Lanka has been ruled under a powerful executive presidential system since 1978, but a reformist government in 2015 clipped much of the president’s powers and gave them over to Parliament and independent commissions, saying successive presidents had been more authoritarian.
Pompeo arrived in Sri Lanka late Tuesday from India, where he and Defense Secretary Mark Esper had stepped up the Trump administration’s anti-China message by playing on Indian suspicions about the Chinese to shore up a regional front against Beijing,
“The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their freedom and sovereignty.” Pompeo said, referring pointedly to ones posed by the Chinese Communist Party, ”Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the CCP is no friend to democracy, the rule of law, transparency, nor to freedom of navigation — the foundation of a free and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Just hours before the meetings in New Delhi began, the Trump administration notified Congress of plans for a $2.37 billion sale of Harpoon missile systems to Taiwan — the second major arms sale in two weeks to the democratic island that Beijing regards as a renegade province. China angrily reacted to the first sale by announcing sanctions on U.S. defense contractors.