Reacting sharply to a Pentagon report on security developments involving China, flagging the Asian giant’s “likely consideration” of overseas military bases in countries such as Sri Lanka, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo accused the United States of widespread military occupation.
“A thief believes everybody steals. Despite the withdrawal of U.S military bases and troops from Afghanistan, the US continues to maintain about 750 military bases abroad. These bases are costly in a number of ways: financially, politically, socially, and environmentally,” the Colombo-based Embassy said on Twitter, responding to a local journalist’s tweet on the US Department of Defense report. The official handle of the Chinese mission also shared a map showing “military bases controlled by the U.S.”.
The Chinese Embassy’s response comes amid a well-known geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China for greater influence in the strategic Indian Ocean region. The U.S.’s preoccupation with China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka has been consistent in the post-war decade, irrespective of the party in power. In a visit to Colombo in October 2020, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, from the Donald Trump administration, called China a “predator” in Sri Lanka, while the U.S., he said, was a “friend”.
The Chinese Embassy’s tweet is not the first instance of the China-US clash is playing out in Sri Lanka. US Ambassador in Colombo Alaina B. Teplitz, who recently completed her term, has openly criticised Chinese projects. Voicing concern over the legislation passed in Sri Lanka to govern the China-backed Port City in capital Colombo, she had remarked that there were “openings for either corrupt influences or potential of illicit financing, money laundering and things like that. US companies are going to be wary of that”. China, in turn, accused the US Ambassador of “violating diplomatic protocol” and suggested that the US “quit the addiction” to “preaching”, and “applying double standards.”
While China-backed projects have in the past sparked questions within Sri Lanka on due process and transparency, there is currently mounting resistance to the US’s involvement in a key energy deal in the island nation. Last month, the Ceylon Electricity Board agreed to sell a 40% stake in a power plant in Kerawelapitiya, near Colombo, to US firm New Fortress Energy, and trade unions are resisting the move that they say, gives the U.S. a monopoly over LNG sales to the country.
Despite differences with the US over war-time rights abuses in Sri Lanka, and amid Washington’s persisting concerns over Colombo’s proximity to Beijing, the ruling Rajapaksa administration has maintained close links with the US.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was formerly a US citizen as well. He surrendered his US citizenship to meet a legal requirement to run for President in 2019. Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the younger brother of President Gotabaya and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the US.