US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday denounced China's 'predatory' behavior during a visit to Sri Lanka which he is trying to keep away from Beijing, before announcing the opening of an embassy in the Maldives to counter the growing Chinese influence.
Since the start of his Asian tour in India on Monday, Mr. Pompeo has been hammering out his attacks on China. Both Sri Lanka and the Maldives, strategically located in the Indian Ocean, have taken on massive debt with Beijing in recent years, raising concerns in Washington and elsewhere.
"A strong and sovereign Sri Lanka constitutes a powerful strategic partner for the United States on the world stage," Pompeo told reporters after talks in Colombo with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Referring to US military assistance and the recent donation of two coastguard ships, Pompeo said that this contrasted with the Chinese attitude.
"We see in the light of bad agreements, violations of sovereignty and unlawful acts on land and at sea, that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator and the United States behaves differently," he said.
- Video game -
The Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka, which warned him just before his arrival not to "coerce and intimidate" the country, retorted with a mocking tweet. Under an advertisement for the video game "Aliens vs Predator", she warns: "Sorry Mr. Pompeo we are busy promoting China / Sri Lanka friendship and cooperation, not interested in your invitation to play."
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena did not mention China but assured the press that his country maintains a policy of non-alignment.
Rajapaksa assured Pompeo that he was in no way prepared to compromise the island's independence and denied that it is heading into a Chinese debt trap, his office said.
Sri Lanka borrowed billions of dollars from China when Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of the current president and now prime minister, was head of state between 2005 and 2015. The island had to rent from a Chinese firm in 2017 with a 99 year lease a port built with a loan that it could not repay.
Coming to Colombo earlier in October, the Communist Party's top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, pledged more economic aid.
China has in the past supported Colombo's rejection of accusations of human rights abuses especially in the final months of the conflict with the Tamil Tigers which lasted 37 years until 2009 and claimed more than 100,000 lives. the UN. Mahinda Rajapaksa was then president and his brother Gotabaya was in fact in charge of the armed forces.
Mr. Pompeo then flew to the Maldives, after laying a wreath at the Saint-Antoine Catholic Church in Colombo where 56 people were killed at Easter 2019 in coordinated jihadist attacks. These attacks on three churches and three hotels left a total of 279 dead, including five Americans.
In Malé, after meeting President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, he announced that his country would send a permanent ambassador to the Maldives, a sign of its "unshakeable commitment to the Maldives and the Indo-Pacific region".
China opened an embassy in the Maldives in 2011, becoming one of the first countries to set up a permanent diplomatic mission in the archipelago.
Mr. Pompeo warned the Maldives, a Sunni Muslim country of 340,000 inhabitants, against Beijing's "threatening and lawless attitude".
In this coral archipelago with beaches popular with tourists, honeymooners and celebrities, he also assured that the importance of waste left at sea by China would be "unacceptable" for other countries.
Mr. Pompeo then traveled to Indonesia. The Vietnamese government announced that it would come in stride to Vietnam but this visit was not immediately confirmed by the State Department.