NEW DELHI/MALE (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday the Chinese Communist Party had brought lawlessness to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, as the top U.S. diplomat kept up tough criticism of China during a trip to Asia.
The five-day tour is aimed at girding allies against China’s increasing political and military inroads in the region in recent years.
Pompeo said on Wednesday that Washington would open an embassy in the Maldivian capital of Male for the first time, in an attempt to counterbalance Chinese presence there.
China has invested billions of dollars in projects in Sri Lanka and the Maldives as part of its Belt and Road Initiative of transport and energy links, a programme the United States believes is designed to trap smaller countries into debt.
Pompeo was heavily critical of China’s “lawless and threatening” behaviour in the region, telling a news conference at a resort near Male Beijing was illegally occupying territory and damaging the environment.
There was no immediate comment from Beijing on Pompeo’s remarks.
Earlier on Wednesday, Pompeo arrived in Sri Lanka where he met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and said China was preying on the country.
“We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way, we come as a friend, and as a partner,” Pompeo told a televised news conference in the capital, Colombo.
In contrast to India, which is locked in a military stand-off with China and was the first stop on Pompeo’s trip, Sri Lanka is a close ally of Beijing.
Rajapaksa’s office released a statement on Wednesday rejecting the accusation that China was attempting to trap the country into debt.
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, meanwhile, said Sri Lanka wanted peace and good relations with all.
“Sri Lanka is a neutral, non-aligned country, committed to peace,” Gunawardena said at the joint news briefing with Pompeo.
“We hope to continue with our relations with the United States and other countries.”
Before returning to Washington, Pompeo is due to visit Indonesia, another country that is in a military dispute with China.
Pompeo is also due to visit Vietnam, the country’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday, though the U.S. State Department has yet to confirm a stop there.