February 1, 2024 Reading Time: 6 minutes
Reading Time: 6 min read
The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) hosted a roundtable discussion on 1 February 2024 on the theme “Strengthening Engagement in Sri Lanka – Australia Relations”. The roundtable was facilitated by Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, Executive Director of LKI, and featured Ms. Ishara Tilakaratna, an undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who concluded a 4-month internship at the LKI this month.
Opening the ‘round table’ held under Chatham House Rules, Amb. Aryasinha said the series was intended to provide a platform for experts on the respective subject/issue areas to engage in a candid discussion, of which the output could be readily shared with policymakers and interlocutors. Emphasizing that Australia was an important and influential Middle Power with whom Sri Lanka has had a longstanding relationship, Amb. Aryasinha emphasized the need for Sri Lanka foreign policy to engage more with such relationships, even as it remains pre-occupied with the complexities emanating from the major power rivalries in the region.
The discussion was contributed to by former Sri Lankan High Commissioners to Australia, representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Australian High Commission in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s Export Development Board, Board of Investment, Port City Colombo, the Sri Lanka-Australia-New Zealand Business Council of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, academic, defence, sports, civil society experts, and LKI researchers.
Ms. Tilakaratna, who placed the Sri Lanka – Australia relationship in its historical context, assessed it under three key dimensions – politico-strategic, economic, and socio-cultural relations. Noting that besides bilateral aspects where defence, border security and prevention of maritime crime were important aspects, the two countries also collaborated significantly in global and particularly regional multilateral fora including in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Although there was a Sri Lanka – Australia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) signed in 2017 and renewed in 2023, and tariffs on Sri Lankan exports to Australia are relatively low, however Sri Lanka’s exports were modest to Australia, as Sri Lanka’s export basket is matched by China, Indonesia and Vietnam who export to Australia with a geographical and cost advantage under free trade agreements and other institutional arrangements that grant preferential market access and tariffs of under 2%. Additionally, , traditional exports such as pure Ceylon Tea had seen a drop in exports due cheaper blended varieties entering the market. As for investment/project assistance it was noted that while Australian firms have played an important part in Sri Lanka’s renewable energy sector, interest shown in the agriculture sector had not been exploited. While the several waves of migration of Sri Lankans to Australia since independence had been the foundation of people-to-people relations initially, presently it was nurtured through Australia becoming the more favoured destination for Sri Lankan undergraduate students, with over 15,000 students currently enrolled in Australian universities. Australia is also a source country for international tourists – ranking 5th with 67,436 travellers arriving in 2023. However, they remain predominantly of Sri Lankan origin, with more than half stating visiting friends and relatives as the purpose of their visits.
The discussion on the politico-strategic dimension, drew attention to the longstanding political relationship, as well as the ability of the two countries to support each other on pressing issues. The Former High Commissioners to Australia who detailed some of the issues which brought out the mutual understanding, stressed that being pro-active and candid had contributed to effective cooperation on political matters. Emphasis was drawn to Sri Lanka’s strong help to the Australian Government in curbing human smuggling, while in addition to supporting aspects of defense cooperation, Australia had taken a more nuanced approach in responding to issues that arose during separatist terrorist conflict in Sri Lanka and in its aftermath. It was noted that current political engagement had resulted in continued support to enhancing Sri Lanka’s maritime security and cyber security, and that collaborative projects like the coastal forecast system was funded by Australia, while it also contributed to the Blue Economy. It was emphasized that Sri Lanka’s role as the current Chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) could be leveraged to encourage greater engagement, and that there was vast scope for collaboration in hydrography and oceanography, including projects funded by the Australian Navy. The prospects for revitalising the agricultural sector through technological collaboration with Australia with potential for increased productivity and diversification was also focussed on, while the bottlenecks in this regard were assessed. The Australian authorities highlighted the efforts of the Australian government to promote good governance in Sri Lanka and build public sector capacity through knowledge transfer and local empowerment. These efforts were welcomed by experts, who emphasised the importance of also sharing best practices in good governance which is at the heart of structural reforms and in the recovery of illegal assets.
In discussing the socio-cultural dimension, the opportunities to involve the Sri Lankan diaspora living in Australia was a main focus. It was pointed out that Sri Lankan immigrants have positive thoughts about the rights and benefits they get in Australia. While Sinhalese migrants are particularly happy about the travel, career and educational rights and benefits, Tamil migrants are more focused on political rights. However, the research done in New Zealand and Australia in recent times had revealed that Sri Lankan immigrants in Australia takes longer to feel belonging to Australia than those who are in New Zealand. The main reason as found in the research is the difficulty to get the same recognition for their local professional experience in the job market in Australia, although the same experience is counted as valid in the visa process. As with other countries with sizable Sri Lanka diaspora populations, issues faced included delays in dual nationality processing, simplifying the processes to engage in business ventures in Sri Lanka, and concerns regards transparency and accountability in their engagement and financial contributions were noted. It was highlighted that following the establishment of the Office of Overseas Sri Lankan Secretariat (OOSLA) in the Presidential Secretariat, concerted action was underway to address these concerns and to more pro-actively engage with the diaspora. While Australia’s support to Sri Lanka Cricket – in sourcing coaches, physios, and trainers since 1995 had helped in elevating Sri Lanka’s cricket standards, disappointment was expressed on the lack of follow through on getting similar support for other sports, despite the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on sports cooperation between Sri Lanka and Australia in October 2023. In the field of education, it was noted that while the collaboration that had been possible in enabling the conduct of foundation courses in Sri Lanka to be taught in nearly 30 Australian affiliated institutes operating in Sri Lanka, granting University status to some who qualify to conduct full degree programmes would be more cost effective for Sri Lankans, while also helping Sri Lanka establish itself as an educational hub in the region, enabling foreign students to also follow such courses bringing foreign exchange into the country. This is also complemented by a strong government to government relationship in the education sector, which is one of the target areas for Australian development assistance and technical support, including the Australia Awards scheme.
The discussion on the economic dimension focussed on trade, investment, tourism and development assistance. Michael Iveson, Research Fellow (Global Economy) at LKI, analysed the current state of the Australia-Sri Lanka trade relations and observed several constraints including regulation, competitiveness, and regionalism, as hampering improvements. The discussion outlined that Sri Lanka’s domestic industries may be unable to compete in the Australian market due to a lack of industrialisation and structural challenges that must be addressed through long-term transformations. While acknowledging that this is a domestic capacity issue and not unique to the Australia-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship, he also discussed the potential for investment to bridge the gap in trade and establish new economic relations between the two countries. It was noted that as at 1998 Australia was the 2nd largest source country for investment to Sri Lanka, and the discussion focused on the current investment bottlenecks in Sri Lanka and some of the challenges faced by Australian firms hoping to expand their businesses to Sri Lanka. It was stated that an Australian-branded university, along with a renowned UK-based school, and a multi-specialty hospital operated by the esteemed US-based Mayo Clinic are to operate in the Port City Colombo which is a international multi-services Special Economic Zone (SEZ). There was also a focus on Australia’s economic expertise and how Australian firms could support capacity building in successful sectors such as renewable energy, mineral extraction and climate-smart agriculture. The economic multiplier associated with such investments beyond traditional economic growth was acknowledged and emphasised by experts who recognise Australia’s economic potential in Sri Lanka as a peripheral global power with technical expertise. The Australian authorities noted that Australia’s economic interest in Sri Lanka will continue to target inclusive economic growth, focussing on women’s empowerment and climate resilience as projects that support Sri Lanka’s economic recovery.
Stakeholders at the roundtable discussion included: Ambassador Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, Former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia; Ambassador Somasundaram Skandakumar, Former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia; Ms. Yasoja Gunasekera, Additional Secretary/West, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Rear Admiral Y. N. Jayarathna, Former Chief of Staff of the Sri Lankan Navy and Former Joint Chief Hydrographer of Sri Lanka, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives; Dr. Pavithra Jayawardena, Senior Lecturer, Department of International Relations, University of Colombo; Ambassador V. Krishnamoorthy, Director General, Office for Overseas Sri Lankan Affairs, Presidential Secretariat; Ms. Samantha K. Jayasuriya, Director , Office for Overseas Sri Lankan Affairs, Presidential Secretariat; Mr. Brendon Kuruppu, Former Sri Lankan Cricketer & Administrator; Dr. Dayaratna Silva, Executive Director, Pathfinder Foundation; Dr. Roshan Perera, Senior Research Fellow, Advocata Institute; Dr. Lakmini Fernando, Research Fellow, Institute of Policy Studies; Mr. Shakthi De Silva, Researcher, National University of Singapore; Ms. Priyanka Samaraweera, Executive Director – Research & Policy Advocacy, Board of Investment; Ms. Anoma Premathilake, Director – Market Development, Sri Lanka Export Development Board; Mr. Shalaka Wijeyaratne, Executive Director – Investment Promotion & Marketing, CHEC Port City Colombo Pvt. Ltd.; Mr. Gerard Victoria, Director / CEO – Aviation and Member – Group Management Committee, Hayleys Advantis Limited, Sri Lanka-Australia-New Zealand Business Council; Mr. Ruwan Rajapakse, Managing Director – Jiffy Products S.L. (Pvt) Ltd, Sri Lanka-Australia-New Zealand Business Council. Invitees from the Australian High Commission in Colombo included; Ms. Lalita Kapur, Deputy High Commissioner; Dr. Paul Zeccola, First Secretary Political & Economic; Ms. Tanya Warnakulasuriya, Senior Program Manager; Mr. Trivan Annakkarage, Policy Research & Information Officer.