What Brings Pompeo to SL?

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 24 2020
Focus What Brings Pompeo to SL?

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

A crucial event is waiting to unfold, one not seen since former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Sri Lanka on 3 May , 2015, immediately after Maithripala Sirisena was elected President and it took US-Lanka relations to the next level, but ‘sank’ over the years.

Now it’s US State Secretary Michael R. Pompeo’s turn to revive the ‘souring ties’ as he visits the country on 28 October. 

Pompeo’s visit to South East Asia, which includes India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia, braving the coronavirus and just before during the US’s Presidential Poll next month, expresses nothing but the US-China rivalry that is escalating in the backdrop that is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)  by China  has gone to  great lengths while many governments precisely India and US became worried about the ulterior motive behind the BRI projects as the Chinese military  capabilities are tied to their digital technology and network and satellite system, endangering their national security. 

Powell’s visit

In 2005, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Sri Lanka when the country was devastated by the Tsunami. The visit was solemn and calm as there wasn’t any geopolitical tensions in the South Asian region at the time except for the war with the Tamil Tigers. 

Ceylon Today learns that members of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s staff have already arrived in Sri Lanka to prepare for his visit and all aspects of their arrival and stay have been organised in close coordination with the Government of Sri Lanka.  

Ceylon Today also learns that a flight load of his security personnel have also arrived and more such flights from the US are set to arrive before his visit on 28 October.

State Secretary Pompeo’s visit to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia from October 25-30 with his Defence Secretary Mark T. Esper, speaks volumes.

The US State Department said in a communiqué that Pompeo’s visit to Colombo is to underscore the commitment of the US to a partnership with a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advance their common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. 

Pompeo is set to meet President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena to emphasise the US’s commitment to a strong, independent, and democratic Sri Lanka.  “We want to partner with Sri Lanka on our shared goals of sustainable economic development and a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the State Department communiqué said.

US Assistant Secretary of Bureau for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, David R Stilwell, on 22 October said, “In the interest of strengthening our longstanding partnership with Sri Lanka and reinforcing our long-term commitment to the region, we encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for a transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices”.  He also noted, “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 economic development and growth.”

The US Office further noted that they will emphasise the ties between the people, their shared commitment to democracy, and the importance of their ongoing regional maritime security cooperation.  “We’ll continue to urge Sri Lanka to advance democratic governance, human rights, reconciliation, religious freedom, and justice, which promote the country’s long-term stability and prosperity and ensure the dignity and equality of its diverse communities.”

But the reason for State Secretary Pompeo’s visit to India is the best out of the lot.  They intend to accelerate their relationship with India. Stilwell said, “Indeed, we have an outstanding opportunity to strengthen the US-India ties, which is vital to security and stability both in the region and in the world.”  The top US diplomat will meet Prime Minister Modi to discuss ways in which they can advance the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.  

Secretary Pompeo and Esper will also meet their Indian counterparts, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and Defence Minister Singh, for the third annual US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. “The 2+2 format is reserved for our closest friends and partners and reflects our belief that the United States and India are stronger, more secure, and more prosperous when we work together,” said Stilwell.  

The 2+2 discussions will focus on global cooperation, pandemic response and challenges in the Indo-Pacific: economic space and energy collaboration, people-to-people ties, and defence and security cooperation.  

India is already closing in on an agreement with the US that will give it access to satellite data for better accuracy of missiles and drones that would try to close the gap with the powerful Chinese military.

The Indian Government has said that Indo-US ties are expected to announce a Pact during Pompeo’s visit. 

With Malé, Pompeo will want to reaffirm their close bilateral relationship and advance the partnership on issues ranging from regional maritime security to the fight against terrorism and he will meet with President Solih and Foreign Minister Shahid in this regard.

In Jakarta, the US State Secretary will meet with his Indonesian counterparts to affirm the two countries’ vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Kerry’s SL visit in 2015 

Kerry’s visit to Sri Lanka was also when the US realised that Sri Lanka was tilting towards China and not balancing the regional cooperation with others ever since Sri Lanka embarked on a Strategic Cooperative Partnership with China in 2013. China’s strategy was fully economic and thereby kept the leadership of those countries happy under their guardianship. 

There was also an uproar at the time when it was thought that Kerry was meddling with our internal affairs when he lauded Sri Lanka’s attempt to bring about constitutional and administrative reforms by the then Government to consolidate democracy and rule of law. He said the new Sri Lankan leaders were not afraid of handling difficult issues of national importance. He also discussed issues of bilateral, regional and international concern for both countries and both countries agreed they would launch a Partnership Dialogue to discuss on a regular basis, bilateral and international issues with a view to further enhance engagement between the two nations. 

When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe halted China’s Port City project to review its proposal with the Rajapaksa regime, the US was happy but the government lifted the ban after a year or so. China became the talk of the town when they won more projects without any contest.  China was keen to support Sri Lanka in any missions where Sri Lanka needed financial assistance or material support.  They offered financial grants but their biggest take away was the Hambantota Port given to them on a 99-year lease.

In the meantime, attention was focused on relations with the US when the Yahapalana government led by then PM Ranil Wickremesinghe was in power between 2015 – 2019, when he took steps to sign the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact involving a USD 480 million grant, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) were seen as challenging Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The US assured that they  were mere grants but those who opposed the agreements said it is attempting to make Sri Lanka a USA military base.  Due to its political connotations, all these US Pacts were shelved by the current government.  

While US in its anti-China propaganda openly accused Sri Lanka of getting disproportionately close to China, local politicians and several professionals were also seen shouting anti-US slogans.  Additionally, the US’s Quad partners (Japan and India) have lately come under heavy criticism in Sri Lanka and that led US to realise that they were losing their grip on Sri Lanka. 

To bolster the argument that the US is one of the best bilateral partners of Sri Lanka, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina B Teplitz in her remarks to the Sri Lanka–US Business Council of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce last month, noted that Sri Lanka has exported close to USD 3 billion worth of goods to the US in 2019, a whopping 72% increase over the past decade and is the largest single market for Sri Lankan exports.  However, she also noted that Sri Lankan investments in the US in 2019 amounted to USD 67mn, so not a huge amount and welcomed local companies to partner with them as there is room for improvement. 

The US, Japan, Australia and some EU countries have come down strong on Sri Lanka and from time to time top dignitaries from those countries, including Chinese (to counter), visit Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Government kept having a tough time to explain their need to stay non-aligned to them. The government still reiterates that they want to continue ties with all countries and want investors to come to Sri Lanka but that does not seem to be the ground reality. 

To begin with, the US and Japan had no interest at all in Sri Lanka other than a decades-old trade partnership which was going on steadily.

But when it became part of China’s Strategic Cooperation in 2013 , 

Sri Lanka’s every move mattered for the US  that formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad to oppose China because Chinese investment projects in several countries was giving it too much influence in those States, they argue.

They say Chinese projects are seen as profitable in many instances but the US administration fears that these trade ties were also promoting Chinese influence in those countries and international investments were jeopardising not only their trade but also the security in the Indian Ocean region and also in the Indo-Pacific region. 

China not only gave loans to Sri Lanka but also topped the list in offering grants and medical supplies every time Sri Lanka faced an emergency.  The last such grant from China was a USD 90 million by Yang Jie Chi, a Communist Party Politburo member who visited Sri Lanka several weeks ago. 

Even though China did not make a military pact with Sri Lanka, it is a main contributor in terms of technical assistance, military donations etc to the Tri-Forces. China also gifted a powerful warship in 2018 to Sri Lanka Navy- (SLNS Parakramabahu)  built in 1994 by the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) of China. 

India openly has said that China’s presence in the Indian Ocean region is a threat to their security. When the Hambantota Port and the CICT terminal inside the Colombo Port were partnered with China, and shelved many of the Quad’s projects, the US categorically said, ‘this is it’.  

The Custom Report on Sri Lanka by the US Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs recently said that the US is the largest single market for Sri Lankan exports, capturing over USD 2.8 billion worth of the total business as per US Census Bureau data and that China is investing in strategic ports and port-related industries and the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) faces considerable domestic opposition to these trade and investment deals and must work hard to win over their opponents. 

Forecasting on the debt, the US report noted that Sri Lanka suffers from a large foreign debt burden. Foreign debt is comprised of concessional debt and commercial debt, including debt owed to China for infrastructure projects. While official reserves amounted to USD 5.6 billion in February 2017, external debt obligations payable are approximately USD 2.5 billion in 2017, increasing to US$3.2 billion in 2018 and USD 3.7 billion in 2019.

Speaking further on Chinese projects, the report noted that the Colombo Port is one of the most active in the region and is situated on a major global shipping lane. The Sri Lankan Government expects substantial strategic FDI from China into ports and port related industries. The GoSL is debating selling a stake of the Chinese-funded and built Hambantota Port to a Chinese company and has approved a Chinese logistics and industrial zone in Hambantota. Colombo Financial City (formerly called Colombo Port City) is a large–scale land reclamation and city development project being developed by a Chinese company. The FDIs from the United States, Europe and elsewhere has not materialised, they said.

But China on the other hand boasts many of its services to Sri Lanka besides servicing through loans. The Chinese Embassy in Colombo reiterates that the CICT terminal in Colombo Port has offered 99% of jobs to locals. 

“The Hambantota Port Operation transition is not a debt trap. It’s absurd to see some local media copy the western narratives,” notes an official at the Chinese Embassy.  

The Chinese Embassy argued that the UK had leased the London Gateway Port to Dubai with no time limit and Australia leased the Darwin Port to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease and no one talks about sovereignty there.

China has several government grant projects in Sri Lanka such as the Nelum Pokuna Theatre, a joint research and demonstration centre for water technology, a National Kidney Disease Hospital, a new outpatient department of the National Hospital, maintenance of the BMICH and the renovation of the Supreme Court. 

But the Quad, especially the US and Japan, have always noted that China would strengthen its influence not only by loans but also with gifts but surely China is not going to admit to it but as usual it would rubbish such backlashes in the strongest terms. The tension between the US and China would keep going back and forth while the  other countries watch the geopolitical drama as long as it does not affect them personally.

Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka is all about strengthening ties and applying pressure on the implementation of the MCC and other shelved agreements. The US may also caution Sri Lanka on the security of the Indo-Pacific region and the outcome would be explicitly seen in the coming years how Sri Lanka would be reacting to Pompeo’s visit with China by its side. 

But US President Trump’s win next month will determine the latest scenario of the China-US rivalry. 

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 24 2020

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