US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s communist government a “predator” on Wednesday during a trip to boost ties with Sri Lanka, which has received huge investment and diplomatic support from Beijing.
Pompeo made his latest attack on China after talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on security cooperation to keep open vital Indian Ocean sea lanes just south of Sri Lanka.
“A strong sovereign Sri Lanka is a powerful strategic partner for the United States on the world stage,” Pompeo told reporters as he wrapped up a 12-hour visit, the second stop on a four-nation tour.
“We want the people of Sri Lanka to have sovereignty and independence. We want them to be successful. We want sustainable development for them.”
Pompeo described how Washington has provided military training and recently gifted two coastguard vessels, contrasting its assistance with China.
“The Chinese Communist Party is a predator,” he declared.
The Chinese embassy in Colombo hit back, tweeting a promotional image for the “Aliens vs Predator” video game.
“Sorry Mr. Secretary Pompeo, we’re busy promoting China-Sri Lanka friendship and cooperation, not interested in your Alien v Predator game invitation,” it said.
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena made no reference to China, but at a press conference with Pompeo, told reporters that the country maintains a non-aligned foreign policy.
“Once again we see Sri Lanka has become a familiar playground for international geopolitical rivalries,” Charu Lata Hogg of Chatam House told Al Jazeera from London.
“These rivalries have played out in the past … this is not new,” she added.
Sri Lanka borrowed billions of dollars from China for infrastructure when Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda was the country’s leader from 2005 to 2015.
Unable to service a $1.4bn loan to build a deep seaport, the country was forced to lease the port to a Chinese firm for 99 years in 2017.
On Tuesday, the Chinese embassy accused Pompeo of trying to “coerce and bully” Sri Lanka with his visit.
Earlier this month, Yang Jiechi, a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party Politburo member, pledged more economic help to Sri Lanka when he was in Colombo.
Anti-China comments have been a key theme of Pompeo’s Asian tour this week, which began in India and will now take him on to the Maldives and Indonesia.
China has in the past helped Sri Lanka fight off allegations of human rights violations, particularly in the final months of a decades-long civil war, when the current president was the country’s top defence official.
Washington has insisted on credible investigations into charges that Sri Lankan troops killed at least 40,000 civilians as they crushed Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009.
Pompeo wrapped up his Sri Lanka visit by placing flowers and praying at a Roman Catholic church where 56 people were killed in a suicide attack on Easter Sunday in 2019.
Five Americans were among 279 people killed in the coordinated attacks on three churches and three hotels in and around Colombo.