March 28, 2019 Reading Time: 4 minutes
Ganeshan Wignaraja and Dinusha Panditaratne*
The third anniversary of the unity government’s election is an opportune time to consider the recent evolution of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Evident changes to Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since 8 January 2015 include Sri Lanka’s engagement with a wider range of international partners, as well as its willingness to undertake necessary commitments to address the country’s post-conflict concerns.
These well-known changes have been pursued within a new and overarching foreign policy framework that is perhaps less well-known; a framework of positioning Sri Lanka to become a vibrant and prosperous centre of the Indian Ocean. Developed with the vision of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in view of the increasing prosperity and competition in the Indian Ocean, this fresh foreign policy framework complements and builds on Sri Lanka’s established status as a non-aligned, South Asian nation.
The Indian Ocean is emerging as a new global growth pole. The rise of Asia, spearheaded by China’s rapid growth, has transformed the Indian Ocean into one of the world’s busiest East-West trade corridors, carrying two thirds of global oil shipments and a third of bulk cargo. Growth in the Indian Ocean is on an upward trend; benefiting from a rich natural resource base, vast fish stocks and a talent pool of educated youth. Economic reforms in India, Sri Lanka and others are unleashing the private sector as the engine of growth. The 28 dynamic economies that border the Indian Ocean across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific are expected grow at about 6% per year in the next few years compared with only 3.7% for a fragile world economy. Per capita income in the Indian Ocean region is expected to double from USD 3,200 to USD 6,150 between 2017 and 2025, marking it out as an upper-middle income region.
This represents a huge economic opportunity for Sri Lanka which is strategically located at the centre of the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka relies on open sea lanes for its imports of petroleum, food and machinery and its exports of tea, apparel and rubber products. The country is pursuing its plan to become a regional trading, logistics and financial hub, situated between the leading hubs of Dubai and Singapore. For instance, streamlining red tape and prudent macroeconomic management are expected to give birth to an international financial centre at the Colombo Port City and complement the shift towards services-led development. Success in this venture will mean higher quality jobs and better incomes for millions of future generations of Sri Lankans.
However, four external risks are looming on the horizon to peace and prosperity to Sri Lanka and other Indian Ocean economies. First, the Indian Ocean is at risk of heightened competition between the big powers – similar to what is visible in the South China Sea. An impasse between these powers or a skirmish at sea could spiral and disrupt regional trade, including that of Sri Lanka. Second, natural resources and fisheries are being depleted at unsustainable rates. There are worries about large fishing trawlers from neighbouring countries overfishing in Sri Lankan waters which could affect fisherman’s livelihoods. Third, there are difficulties in containing maritime crimes – people smuggling, drug trafficking and piracy. Fourth, trade protectionism is on the rise partly due to a backlash against globalization, as well as disruptive technological change and a simmering emerging market debt crisis.
A major tenant of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since 2015 has been to revive the country’s support of a rules-based order, both regionally and internationally. This mirrors what Lee Kuan Yew pursued for Singapore, in the knowledge that rules-based orders protect the interests of smaller countries against larger ones. Sri Lanka has been a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 1995 and a member of GATT since 1948 which deal with the rules of international trade between countries. Sri Lanka has also played a role in the development of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which codified customs and set rules to maintain order and peaceful relations at sea.
In an important new initiative for a rules-based regional order, the Sri Lankan government convened a landmark conference entitled “The Indian Ocean: Defining Our Future” that was held in Colombo on 11-12 October 2018. This Track 1.5 dialogue, coordinated by the foreign ministry, brought together over 300 government officials and academics from over 40 Indian Ocean littoral states and maritime users. Participants included senior officials from India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the US, China, Germany, Japan and several other nations; as well as the UN Special Envoy for the Ocean; and think tank representatives from the region and beyond.
As a country located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is vulnerable to the aforementioned risks to regional security, sustainability and trade. And as a smaller state that cannot afford huge military power, Sri Lanka is unable to address the four above-mentioned risks alone. Sri Lanka therefore convened this conference to understand the impact of these risks and to address them jointly with other countries in a transparent and orderly way. This approach is the tried and tested method of all successful small countries – like Singapore in ASEAN, New Zealand in the Pacific and the Netherlands in Europe – that have faced similar risks.
In his keynote address at the conference, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe highlighted the need to maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of digital connectivity for the region to prosper. The conference laid important groundwork for an eventual inter-governmental conference to arrive at a shared understanding on the future of the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lankans have recently been occupied by pressing domestic political and economic issues. Foreign policy, including the all-important Indian Ocean which surrounds Sri Lanka, seems distant from most peoples’ minds. However, complacency would be a mistake. A rapidly-changing economic and geopolitical scenario makes engagement with the Indian Ocean fundamental for Sri Lanka’s future peace and prosperity.
In the final analysis, Sri Lanka will not automatically benefit from the economic opportunity simply by being an Indian Ocean country. The road ahead for Sri Lanka’s diplomatic initiative may not be easy and will take some time. Patience and perseverance at quiet diplomacy is needed. This approach will bring lasting economic and security gains for Sri Lanka and for other Indian Ocean littoral states and maritime users.
*Dr. Ganeshan Wignaraja is the Executive Director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI). Dr. Dinusha Panditaratne is a Nonresident Fellow of LKI. All errors and omissions remain the authors’ own. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ and not the institutional views of LKI. They do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the authors are affiliated. This article was originally published in Daily News.