Pompeo to hold talks with Lankan leadership during two-day Colombo visit

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Colombo, Oct 27 (PTI) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Sri Lanka on Tuesday for a two-day visit during which he will hold talks with the top Lankan leadership, as America seeks to balance China's growing influence in the region and to advance the common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Pompeo arrived in India on Monday along with Defence Secretary Mark T Esper for the third edition of the US-India 2+2 dialogue with their counterparts in New Delhi.

After his India visit, Pompeo will travel to Sri Lanka later Tuesday on an invitation extended by his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena.

Pompeo, the highest-level US official to visit Sri Lanka during the tenure of President Donald Trump, will hold official discussions with the Lankan leadership covering several areas of the multifaceted engagement between the two countries.

He will hold talks in Colombo on October 28, Cabinet spokesman and minister Keheliya Rambukwella said.

Pompeo is expected to meet President Gotabaya Rajapaksa alongside his brother and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka will emphasise its need to maintain the independence of its foreign policy during the talks with Pompeo, Regional Cooperation Minister in the foreign ministry Tharaka Balasuriya told reporters on Tuesday.

'He will be here to discuss bilateral issues and regional issues,' Balasuriya said. 'We will be making our position clear'.

Pompeo will also visit the St Anthony's Church in north Colombo, one of the Churches devastated by last year's deadly Easter Sunday attacks.

'Secretary Pompeo will travel to Colombo to underscore the commitment of the United States to a partnership with a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advance our common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific region,' the US State Department said in a statement last week.

The Chinese military has been flexing its muscles in the strategically vital Indo Pacific region and is also engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in both the South China Sea (SCS) and the East China Sea (ECS).

Early this month, India, the US, Japan and Australia agreed to step up coordination in creating a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Pompeo's visit is being seen here as part of the US effort to have Sri Lanka on its side vis-a-vis China.

The opposition JVP held a protest opposite the US embassy urging America to end its alleged interference in Sri Lanka.

Pompeo's visit to Lanka comes two weeks after a high-powered Chinese delegation led by ruling Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi visited Colombo.

Just a day before Pompeo's visit to Colombo, the Chinese Embassy here accused the US of interfering in the relations between China and Sri Lanka.

'We are firmly opposed to the United States taking the opportunity of the State Secretary’s visit to sow and interfere in China-Sri Lanka relations, and to coerce and bully Sri Lanka,” the Embassy said in a statement on Monday.

It said that China and Sri Lanka have enough wisdom to handle relations with each other and do not need a third party to dictate.

The statement hoped that the US will 'correct the ugly practices of arbitrarily interfering in other countries’ domestic and foreign affairs.' China is one of the biggest investors in various infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. But there has been criticism, both locally and internationally, and growing concerns that China has lured Sri Lanka into a debt trap.

The previous Maithripala Sirisena government had entered into a 99-year lease with China in 2017 as a settlement of its debt by way of equity.

Sri Lanka's economy, especially the tourism sector, has been hit hard since last year - initially by the Easter Sunday attacks, which killed over 250 people and later by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Reserve Bank of India in July this year signed necessary documents for extending a USD 400 million currency swap facility to Sri Lanka to boost the nation's draining foreign exchange reserves due to the coronavirus pandemic. The currency swap arrangement will remain available till November 2022. PTI CORR/ZH AKJ ZH ZH