A senior U.S. diplomat pledged support for the new Sri Lankan government’s plans for political and economic reforms, as the two countries try to rebuild relations that had frayed as the previous administration moved closer to China.
On Monday in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal met with Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who repeated a message from his government since its surprise victory Jan. 8.
“We want to raise the relationship between our two countries to a new level of cordiality,” Samaraweera said.
Biswal, the first high-level U.S. diplomat to visit Sir Lanka since the election, said Sri Lanka can count on the U.S. to be a partner and friend “in the way forward.”
“Whether it is on rebuilding the economy, on preventing corruption and advancing good governance, and ensuring human rights and democratic participation for all of its citizens, the United States stands with Sri Lanka,” she added.
President Maithripala Sirisena has promised a 100-day reform program, which includes curbing the overriding powers of the presidency. He has rolled back restrictions on the press and civil society.
The visit renewed hopes that Sri Lanka and the U.S. can rebuild ties that became strained after former President Mahinda Rajapaksa pushed back Western-led efforts for an international human rights probe into a military campaign that crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009.
As he resisted Washington’s influence, the authoritarian leader built stronger ties with China, seeking diplomatic and financial assistance.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, said the new president has pledged to re-engage with Western countries.
“He did make the point that the foreign policy was skewed in favor of the Chinese, over reliance and dependent on them and it needed to be recalibrated to restore balance,” Saravanamuttu said.
“We will continue, I suspect, to have a lot of interest evinced from the international community of the West, which was the section that the Rajapaksas attacked in particular,” he said.
Analysts said Sri Lanka will be looking for large amounts of foreign investment from the U.S. and other Western countries as it tries to strengthen the economy. The previous government had relied heavily on funding from China for infrastructure projects, but the new government has promised to review some of those projects.
'Very polite noises'
S.D. Muni, a South Asia analyst in New Delhi, said the stage is set for ties to improve between Sri Lanka and Western countries.
“Colombo under Sirisena has made very polite noises to comfort both the international community and India on the question of Tamil issue, on the question of internal investigations on human rights violations, on cooperating with the United Nations investigations, so overall generally I expect the relationship will warm up,” Muni said.
Although Sri Lanka is a small island nation off India’s southern tip, it is strategically situated in the Indian Ocean at the crossroads of sea routes between the east and the west.