In the final week before the US presidential elections on November 3, Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo plans to visit India’s two Indian Ocean neighbours, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, after attending the 2+2 talks in Delhi, The Indian Express has learnt.
In Delhi, the talks will involve Pompeo, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and their Indian counterparts, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Pompeo’s stop in Colombo later comes amid US and Indian concerns at China’s stepped-up engagement with the government of recently elected Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Earlier this month, a high-profile Chinese delegation led by Yang Jeichi, former foreign minister, Communist Party Politburo member and head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, had visited Colombo. Following discussions with the delegation, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had said that the two sides would restart negotiations for a free trade agreement, and aim to complete the Colombo Port City and other projects quickly. He also said he wanted a China-style development for Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, a $480 million US development assistance fund for Sri Lanka, through Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an aid agency set up by the US Congress, is gathering dust. The funding was meant for a transport project and an agricultural project, but never got off the ground amid political opposition to the previous government’s plan to renew a 1995 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US.
According to a draft copy leaked to the Lankan media, the SOFA included clauses for visa-free movement of US security and defence personnel in and out of Sri Lanka. The protests prompted the cancellation of Pompeo’s planned visit in June 2019.
Pompeo, who lashed out at China at the recent Quad meeting in Japan, blaming it for the tensions in the Indo-Pacific and at the LAC with India, as well for the coronavirus, will aim to revive the stalled projects under the MCC, sources said. But there may be a pushback, they said.
Last month, Sri Lanka cancelled a $1.5 billion Japanese-funded light rail project for Colombo that had been finalised by the previous government, on the grounds that it was not a “cost-effective solution”. Japan used to be Sri Lanka’s biggest donor until 2007 and executed several infrastructure projects in the country before being gradually replaced by China.
Prior to Yang’s visit, the US and Chinese embassies in Colombo had traded barbs, with US Ambassador Alaina B Teplitz saying in an interview that while Sri Lanka should engage with China, it “should do so in ways that protect its sovereignty and generate real prosperity for everyone, not just elites”.
The Chinese Embassy reacted angrily, saying it was shocked that “a foreign envoy from a third country openly played off China-Sri Lanka relations and severely violated the diplomatic protocol”. It accused the US of making a “despicable attempt to manipulate others’ diplomatic relations”.
Pompeo’s visit to Maldives will be easier. The two countries recently signed a “Framework for a Defence and Security Relationship”. The US Department of Defence said the agreement was intended “to deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean, and marks an important step forward” in the partnership between the two countries.
Maldives Defence Minister Mariya Didi said the agreement would add “immense value to the excellent US-Maldives partnership defined by shared principles & interests in peace & security of the Indo-Pacific & IOR amid rising threats like piracy & terrorism”. India, competing with China to keep its influence in its neighbourhood, had said it supports defence cooperation between the Maldives and the US.
Since his 2018 election, the government of President Ibrahim Solih has rebalanced his predecessor’s tilt towards China.