Pompeo brings anti-China roadshow to Indian Ocean islands

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets the gathering before his meeting with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapksa, right, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeos visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. officials warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)

COLOMBO – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday brought the Trump administration’s anti-China campaign to two Indian Ocean island nations considered particularly at risk for what American officials allege is Chinese exploitation. In one significant step, Pompeo announced that the United States would for the first time open an embassy in the Maldives.

Pompeo visited 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 and beholden to it.

Even before Pompeo arrived, China had fired back at the U.S. message, accusing Washington of bullying smaller nations. Pompeo, who will also visit Indonesia, pressed each country to push back against increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

U.S. officials complain that development and infrastructure projects benefit China more than the presumed recipients — a refrain Pompeo repeated with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. Pompeo said the country could be “a beacon” for freedom and democracy in the region as long as it retained its "full sovereignty.”

“That is quite a contrast to what China seeks," Pompeo said. "The Chinese Communist Party is a predator. The United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and a partner.”

President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told Pompeo that he is not ready to compromise his country's sovereignty in relations with other nations, the president's office said.

He defended Chinese-funded projects, saying Beijing has helped develop his country’s infrastructure and that Sri Lanka has not been caught in a “debt trap” as a result, it said.

Gunawardena also appeared unwilling to get involved in the spat with China, and said Sri Lanka is willing to cooperate with all friendly countries.