Beijing based ‘Global Times’ in an editorial published on Sunday, referring to United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s visit to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia this week, to quote excerpts, said, “Top of his agenda is to mobilise those countries to confront China alongside with the US”.
In the Maldives and Sri Lanka, it is anticipated that Pompeo will disparage the economic cooperation the two countries have been conducting with China and encourage them to seek ‘economic independence.’
The Maldives and Sri Lanka are two small countries whose interests lie in keeping sound relations with all major powers in order to gain more investment and attract more tourists. The US will not invest in them as they attract few American tourists. But as the US Secretary of State proposed a visit, the two countries will have to warmly welcome him. The two countries will not make too much fuss or make any promises. That’s all. China has injected dynamics in the economic development of the two Asian countries, which have no reason to go against China just to cosy up to the US.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Sri Lanka on Thursday had this to say of Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka, to quote excerpts, “Pompeo will travel to Colombo to underscore the commitment of the United States to a partnership with a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advance our common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
In ‘addition’ to what ‘Global Times’ has to say of the US vis-à-vis Sri Lanka from an economic perspective, the US is also Sri Lanka’s largest merchandise export destination, a position it has held for several years and even up to now, while China, as per last year’s official data, was the island’s eleventh largest export destination.
Further, while China was Sri Lanka’s third largest source of tourist arrivals last year, i.e. before the COVID-19 Pandemic hit Sri Lanka, the US was its eighth largest source of tourism arrivals that same year.
Currently Sri Lanka is negotiating a US$ 480 million grant from the US to develop its road network.
Meanwhile, Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka will be the fifth visit by a US Secretary of State to the island since Independence 72 years ago in 1948.
The first of such visits was executed by the then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on 11 March 1956 when Sir John Kotelawala was Prime Minister. The second visit by a US Secretary of State was 16 years later in 1972, when US Secretary of State William P. Rogers undertook a whistle stop tour to Colombo when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister, en route to Yemen.
The third visit by a US Secretary of State was 33 years later on 7 January 2005 when General (Retired) Colin Powell visited Sri Lanka in the backdrop of the 26 December 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. And the fourth visit was by Secretary of State John Kerry from 2-3 May 2015 where he met with the then President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.
In tandem with these developments, Pompeo is scheduled to meet President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena during his stay in Sri Lanka.
Pompeo is the face of US politics. Therefore, behind Pompeo, at least from an economic perspective is the EU, which, prior to Brexit was Sri Lanka’s largest export destination region wise.
And, in respect of the so called ‘Quad’ Group of countries ‘led’ by the US to promote a free and independent Asia-Pacific region are India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, Japan, the largest bilateral source of concessional funding to Sri Lanka and Australia, its fifth largest source of tourism arrivals last year.
Therefore, it’s in Colombo’s interest to consider the multi-country dimensional aspect of Pompeo’s visit to the island, not least the importance of the US as an economic partner, by being the single largest source absorbing the island’s merchandise exports and work towards further expanding economic cooperation between the two countries, for the betterment of the people of Sri Lanka.
Further, if Sri Lanka could persuade the US to consider Sri Lanka to be among the frontline countries to receive the vaccine now being developed by the US to counter COVID-19 that will be the ‘jewel in the crown’ that the island will garner from this VVIP visit.
‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’ (I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts’) is a misplaced statement to make, to describe Pompeo’s visit to the island.