Zulfath Saheed highlights the developing tensions between two global superpowers

In the days leading up to the US presidential election and even as there was heightened concern over the rising incidence of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a two day visit to the island, which incidentally followed a pit stop in India to attend the 2+2 ministerial dialogue held in that nation.

During his visit to Sri Lanka, Pompeo reportedly went so far as to make comments referring to the Chinese Communist Party as “a predator” while asserting that the US “comes in a different way – we come as a friend and a partner.”

Such remarks serve to highlight the increasingly tenuous relationship between the US and China – particularly in relation to their evidently keen interest in the Indian Ocean region – and seemingly, a call for nations such as Sri Lanka to make an ideological choice between the two superpowers.

NOT A COURTESY CALL Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka came only weeks after Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in early October, during which the delegation discussed prospects for closer cooperation between the two Asian nations.

According to a report by the state run Xinhua News Agency, speaking at the time, Yang said China “will under the guidance of the important consensus reached between the two heads of state continue to develop close bilateral exchanges at the top level, consolidate political mutual trust, map out long-term cooperation, strengthen strategic synergisation, and advance the joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).”

Key BRI cooperation projects in Sri Lanka include the Port City (Colombo International Financial City a.k.a. CIFC) and development of the Hambantota Harbour.

Meanwhile, Pompeo’s discussions with the Sri Lankan president focussed on the post-COVID economic recovery and development, while noting the benefits of long-term US private sector trade and investment, “which offers sustainable, transparent and high quality partnership,” according to a State Department release.

STRING OF PEARLS From the PRC’s perspective, the focus on the region would appear to revolve around the ‘String of Pearls’ geopolitical theory – this refers to a network of Chinese military and commercial facilities, and relationships, along China’s sea lines of communication, which extend from the Chinese mainland all the way to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa.

It is noteworthy that these sea lines span a number of crucial maritime chokepoints including the Strait of Mandeb, Strait of Malacca and Strait of Hormuz, as well as the Lombok Strait in addition to the strategic maritime centres of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Somalia.

AMERICAN APPEAL When it comes to America’s presence in the region, the US Navy is said to have unparalleled power projection capabilities and operational strength, being the major naval force in the waters of South and Southeast Asia.

But Chinese ambitions to create a security concept that may challenge US dominance have prompted a greater inclination for China to challenge American influence in the region. This has created a major concern for US offi-cials who view it as a threat to their nation’s role of ensuring global and regional stability.

INDIAN INFLUENCE In the past, India has also looked to counter projects undertaken by China in Sri Lanka – for example, by attempting to assume control of the island’s strategic seaports, developing an oil tank farm in Trincomalee and partnering with Japan to build a container terminal at the Port of Colombo.

In addition, it sought to push through an Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement extending to trade in services.

But while Chinese projects were approved with relative ease, the US and India have met with significant resistance. This highlights Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China especially in recent times and intensifying our neighbour’s interest in the island, which bear added significance in the light of simmering tensions between India and China.

TRADE TENSIONS The trade war between the US and China provides an added dimension to the relationship of these two developed world giants.

The administration of President Donald Trump actively sought to make a case against what it viewed as unfair Chinese trade practices, such as the transfer of proprietary American technologies and subsidising industrial production. It also resorted to at times unconventional measures amid the deployment of executive powers, trade laws and so on.

In the most recent update on the US-China trade war front, the WTO ruled in September that tariffs imposed by the US on Chinese goods in 2018 were “inconsistent” with international trade regulations, stating that the United States had not provided proof of its claims that China engaged in unfair technology theft – and unsurprisingly, this came much to the delight of Chinese officials.