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story.lead_photo.caption Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena gestures towards U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before their meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)

MALE, Maldives -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday visited two Indian Ocean island nations considered particularly at risk for what American officials allege is Chinese exploitation. In one significant step, Pompeo announced that the United States would for the first time open an embassy in the Maldives.

Pompeo visited Sri Lanka and the Maldives to press the two countries to be on guard against potential predatory lending and investment by China. He was making the case less than a week before the American election in which President Donald Trump is seeking to paint his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, as weak on China and beholden to it.

Even before Pompeo arrived, China had fired back at the U.S. message, accusing Washington of bullying smaller nations. Pompeo, who also will visit Indonesia, pressed each country to push back against increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

U.S. officials complain that development and infrastructure projects benefit China more than the presumed recipients -- a refrain Pompeo repeated with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. Pompeo said the country could be "a beacon" for freedom and democracy in the region as long as it retained its "full sovereignty."

"That is quite a contrast to what China seeks," Pompeo said. "The Chinese Communist Party is a predator. The United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and a partner."

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-JeT6hY5ds]

President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told Pompeo that he is not ready to compromise his country's sovereignty in relations with other nations, the president's office said.

He defended Chinese-funded projects, saying Beijing has helped develop his country's infrastructure and that Sri Lanka has not been caught in a "debt trap" as a result, it said.

Gunawardena also appeared unwilling to get involved in the spat with China, and said Sri Lanka is willing to cooperate with all friendly countries.

"Sri Lanka is a neutral, non-aligned country committed to peace," he said. "We hope to continue in our relations with the United States and with other parties."

Earlier this month, Beijing announced that it would provide Sri Lanka with a $90 million grant to help rural development, after Rajapaksa sought help from a visiting Chinese delegation in disproving a perception that China-funded megaprojects are "debt traps."

Similarly, the Maldives, a tiny archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean known for its luxury tourist resorts, is facing major debt of more than $1 billion for Chinese infrastructure projects. President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has expressed concern about the amount.

In a nod to U.S. concerns about Chinese influence, Pompeo announced that the U.S. would open an embassy in the Maldives for the first time since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1966.

Cooperation between the U.S. and the Maldives has "taken on new importance as the Chinese Communist Party continues its lawless and threatening behavior," Pompeo said. He accused China of encroaching into sovereign economic zones, "trashing the environment" and illegal fishing. "America is different," he said. "We respect sovereignty."

The Maldives' foreign minister, Abdulla Shahid, made no mention of China by name but said his country needs "more flexibility" in international debt relief and urgent international consensus on climate change, which he called an existential threat to his nation. He also said that security in the Indo-Pacific depends on strengthened cooperation between the Maldives and the United States.

China considers Sri Lanka and, to a lesser extent, the Maldives to be a critical link in its huge "Belt and Road" global infrastructure building initiative and has provided billions of dollars in loans for projects over the past decade. The projects include a seaport, airport, port city, highways and power stations in Sri Lanka and roads and bridges in the Maldives.

Critics like the U.S. say that the Chinese-funded projects are not financially viable, and that Sri Lanka and the Maldives will face difficulties in repaying the loans.

Information for this article was contributed by Krishan Francis of The Associated Press.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo places a wreath of flowers at St. Anthony's church, one of the sites of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo's visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official's warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo places a wreath of flowers at St. Anthony's church, one of the sites of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo's visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official's warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets the gathering before his meeting with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapksa, right, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets the gathering before his meeting with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapksa, right, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks to board an aircraft to leave for Maldives, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo's visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official's warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks to board an aircraft to leave for Maldives, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo's visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official's warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets the gathering before his meeting with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapksa in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets the gathering before his meeting with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapksa in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan visit St. Anthony's church, one of the sites of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo's visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official's warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan visit St. Anthony's church, one of the sites of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo's visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official's warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a joint press briefing with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in this Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, file photo. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a joint press briefing with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in this Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, file photo. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena attend a joint press briefing in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena attend a joint press briefing in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapksa before their meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapksa before their meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stand for photographs before their meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stand for photographs before their meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. Pompeo plans to press Sri Lanka to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official’s warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, Pool)
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