COLOMBO: The United States and China are now openly fighting over Sri Lanka, shedding any reservations they may have had about making the island nation a bone of contention openly and officially.

US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz kicked off the fight with an interview to a local English daily in which she openly expressed concern about Sri Lanka’s being taken for a ride by the Chinese through their development projects and about the danger of losing its sovereignty to China.

Given its new found tactic of “wolf diplomacy”, a strong and quick riposte came from the Chinese embassy. It accused the US envoy of flouting diplomatic norms by making adverse remarks on the relationship between the host country (Sri Lanka) and a third country (China).

The embassy’s statement slammed the US for brazenly violating the sovereignty of several nations by direct military interventions. China asked the US to quit the habit of lecturing to other countries about safeguarding sovereignty when it is nakedly interfering in other countries, breaking WTO rules and imposing unilateral sanctions.

“While it's not surprising to see the US interfering in a sovereign country's internal affairs, the general public are astonished to witness its despicable attempt to manipulate others' diplomatic relations. Both China and Sri Lanka, as independent countries, have the full right to develop relations with foreign countries according to their own need and will. “

“The way Sri Lanka and China have engaged with each other has repeatedly stood the test of time, and the government and the people of Sri Lanka have their own independent and fair judgment on their relations with China. The US has no power or obligation to lecture on China-Sri Lanka relations. Such naked hegemony, supremacy and power politics will neither be tolerated by the Chinese nor be accepted by Sri Lankans,” the statement said.

The Chinese statement went on to say that China “strongly suggest” that the US quit its addiction to preaching others and applying double standards.”

Such ridiculous and hypocritical behavior will only damage the US’ poor international reputation which is already hanging by a thin thread.”

The statement then listed “four simple and helpful steps” that Washington should take to repair the damage to its reputation. These are:- (1) Don't slander other countries' work in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic while topping the world in COVID-19 cases (2) Don't pretend to be the guardian of free trade while violating the WTO rulings (3) Don't hold high the banner of transparency while covering up the controversial MCC agreement (4) Don't smear others' normal bilateral cooperation by raising the issue of sovereignty while bombing foreign countries, occupying overseas military bases and imposing unilateral sanctions.

Earlier, in the interview to Daily Mirror, Ambassador Teplitz had questioned China's trade deals with Sri Lanka and asserted the need to ensure that global standards of free trade and a fair investment climate are in place for the benefit of Sri Lankan and US businesses.

Teplitz noted that the US believes partnerships between countries should be open, transparent, and mutually beneficial – and if this is what Sri Lanka's relationship with China embodies, then the US will encourage it.

'Our concern is that Sri Lanka is not vulnerable in its relationships, and that this country is able to negotiate the best deals supporting sustainable, environmentally sensitive, and affordable results,' the Ambassador said in an interview with Daily Mirror.

She noted that a 2019 World Bank study concluded that more than 60 percent of PRC-funded BRI projects are allocated to Chinese companies and stressed that tender processes are opaque.

'The World Bank called for open and transparent public procurement to increase the likelihood that BRI projects are allocated to the firms best placed to implement them. Sri Lankan think tank Verité Research analyzed 50 high value loans from the PRC to Sri Lanka.

All but one loan (where data was available) were 100 percent 'tied' – meaning the loan terms dictated that contracts and tenders be awarded to Chinese contractors, limiting the ability of Sri Lankan and global firms to compete for these projects. Fair competition would lower prices and ensure better quality,' she said.

The Ambassador noted that Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation and it is not up to the United States to dictate the quality of Sri Lanka's partnerships, but the US does believe it is better for countries if transactions are transparent and cost-effective, and if they create jobs and other material benefits for local people.

'It's important that global standards of free trade and a fair investment climate are in place for the benefit of Sri Lankan and U.S. businesses,' she said.

What Teplitz said was part of the US global no-holds-barred anti-China campaign. The choice of Sri Lanka to stage attacks against China is not surprising, given the latter’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean.

The “Quad”, which the US has sewn together to contain China’s economic expansion and alleged military ambitions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), will be useless without Sri Lanka playing a supportive and pivotal role.

Hence the US concern over China’s hold over the Hambantota port, a major container terminal in the Colombo harbor and all its infrastructural projects in Sri Lanka. The fear is that Sri Lanka will come under the tutelage of Beijing unable to pay back the huge loans received from China.

But the Sri Lankan government’s contention, as stated by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is that Chinese funds are required for much-needed infrastructure projects and that the facilities created are being used only for economic purposes.

The President has also let it be known that Sri Lanka does not want to become a theater of Big Power rivalry and that it wants the Indian Ocean to be a Zone of Peace, governed by international law.

But the US and its allies, cannot but look at the economic advance of the Chinese in the region with trepidation as China continues to advance economically even after COVID-19 while the US and the West are languishing. China is continuing its massive infrastructural projects under the multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) after having vanquishing COVID-19 at home. Attacks on China by the US and its allies along with economic sanctions will therefore continue.

Ishan Tharoor, writing in The Washington Post on July 24, 2020 quotes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo branding Chinese President Xi Jinping a “true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology” in pursuit of global Marxist “hegemony.” Pompeo scolded those within the US States and elsewhere in the West who had chosen the path of “timidity” and acquiescence to China’s perceived manipulation of the global system and plans for further domination.

He made a direct call to ignore the Chinese government and engage the Chinese people to topple the government. “The Communist Party fears the Chinese people’s honest opinions more than any foreign foe,” Pompeo said.

But both Donald Trump and his Democratic electoral opponent Joe Biden will have to take stock of the risks of the current path of escalation, Tharoor says.

This is backed by Jie Dalei, a professor of international studies at Peking University, who said: “Both sides should practice some ideological humility. One does not have to change [or] become the other to be able to coexist. In fact, the existence of multiple competitive ideologies is the normal state of affairs throughout most of human history. The domination of one ideology in the global marketplace of ideas is the exception rather than the rule.”