Foreign service officer Julie Chung, during a Congressional hearing on Wednesday, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Sri Lanka is positioned in a strategic location at the heart of the Indian Ocean and its critical ports with access to global maritime lanes and trading routes play a pivotal role in a free and open Indo-Pacific architecture.
“This reinforces the necessity for the United States to build constructive relationships with Sri Lanka, including with civil society, the private sector and the Sri Lankan people,” she said.
Chung told lawmakers that if confirmed, she will work tirelessly to advocate for quality infrastructure and investment based on transparency, respect for international law and good governance, which is mindful of sustainable environmental and labour standards.
“We must also support US companies doing business in Sri Lanka and utilise the tools we have with the Development Finance Corporation and the Export-Import Bank to provide alternatives to coercive lending and opaque contracts,” she said, without naming any country.
China is one of the biggest investors in various infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. But there has been criticism, both locally and internationally, and growing concerns that China has lured Sri Lanka into a debt trap.
The previous Maithripala Sirisena government handed over the Hambantota port to a state-run Chinese firm in 2017 for a 99 years’ lease as a debt swap amounting to $1.2 billion.
US diplomat Chung said: “the sinking of the MV X-Press Pearl cargo ship near the shores of Colombo a few months ago, causing its biggest marine disaster in Sri Lanka’s history, points to the need for upholding such standards”.
“US humanitarian assistance, emergency response capabilities and environmental surveillance tools helped Sri Lanka respond to this tragedy and is emblematic of how we can be a positive force and strong partner to the people of Sri Lanka,” she said.
Sri Lanka, she said, is Asia’s oldest democracy and survived the tragedy of a civil war that resulted in unimaginable violence and continued ethnic and religious divisions.
“If confirmed, I am committed to speaking clearly and consistently in support of democratic values, human rights and a strong civil society that are essential to democracies and central to our foreign policy approach.
“We must also be strong partners in encouraging justice, accountability and reconciliation so that all Sri Lankans can share in the benefits of peace, security and prosperity,” Chung added.