Indo-Asia-Pacific more accurately captures the fact that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are the economic lifeblood linking the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Australia, Northeast Asia, Oceania, and the United States together. Oceans that once were physical and psychological barriers that kept us apart are now maritime superhighways that bring us together.”-Adm. Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command at Galle Dialogue, Sri Lanka-
Prof. Kesavan and ORF Researchers, Distinguished Scholars, ladies and Gentleman.
First let me thank the organizers, ORF for inviting me to this important and timely dialogue . My first visit to ORF was in 2012 with the invitation of Ambassador Rasgotra. It is a great pleasure to interact and be part of a rich discussion organized by a leading Indian Think Tank. Now let me present my paper Geostrategy in the Indo-Pacific. Few hours ago an article appeared in Forbes the title was “China tells India to stay off its Indian Ocean Colony Sri Lanka”. The article is a poor analysis speculating China is encircling India. Sri Lanka will not allow any nation to create a military outpost within the country. I quote Prof. Indra de Soysa who rightly points out “Sri Lanka could potentially take a lead role in establishing a movement that demilitarizes and de-securitizes the Indian Ocean by building a regime for peaceful cooperation”.
My paper will discuss the geopolitical tension the small Island nation face with the changing world order, Sri Lanka’s geostrategic position and its “Asia centric balanced foreign policy” spelled out by President Sirisena with reference to Indo-Pacific.
The existing geopolitical order is threatened and a new world order is unfolding. The paper will present an analysis of two questions: What is Sri Lanka’s role in the Indo-Pacific considering its geostrategic position? And How best could we apply President Sirisena “Asia centric balanced” foreign policy to the Asia-pacific for peaceful cooperation?
According to Stratfor Global Intelligence, one of the leading US security think tanks in the world recently published an article about Sri Lanka which explained, “Despite its small size Sri Lanka holds substantial strategic value by virtue of its geographic position: it is at the center of Asia’s busiest maritime routes and has a wealth of natural deep harbors”. Sri Lanka’s geostrategic position and its importance has been known from ancient times. At the center of China’s modern Maritime Silk Road, Sri Lanka will play a pivotal role in global trade as a maritime hub. India as the neighbour to Sri Lanka with deep rooted, strong historical and cultural relationships will face many challenges to transform the region towards a better position. Indi-Sri Lankan strong relationship, in this context, is vital. Japan regards Sri Lanka as a maritime security partner and Japan is promoting maritime security co-operation with India. Japan-Sri Lanka-India co-operation will be explored. Stronger Japan-Sri Lanka-India trilateral relationship will be an important factor to create a responsible behavior and peaceful cooperation in Indian Ocean will be discussed.
Indo-Pacific at the face of the Volatile world order
The Indo-Pacific is a constructivist connotation of the spatial area which extends from the Eastern Coast of the African continent through the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. In his treatise of Maritime power, Alfred T. Mahan has outlined the primacy of the Indian and Pacific oceans as two oceans which will hedge the continental world island creating direct implications on the geopolitical security and strategy of the world. In the contemporary times, Mahan’s words are successively becoming a reality as the Indo-Pacific has attracted increasing geostrategic significance, largely due to: the shift of economic power from the West to the East; increasing integration between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific rim; and the elevating competition among rising and emerging powers in the region. As Nicholas Spykman asserted, “the Indo-Pacific is the circumferential maritime highway which links the whole area together in terms of sea power.”
However, although the idea of the geostrategic primacy of the Indo-pacific has been discussed by scholars who lived centuries ago, the theorization is still young and growing. Hence, it is imperative to understand the geopolitical backdrop of this herculean region prior to analyzing the Geostrategy in the Indo-Pacific. It should be born my mind that, the vast region will be the most important and strategic region in the next few decades of the post-Westphalian world order.
In this light, the narrative of the power play in the Indo-Pacific should be discussed from the time when the leader of the free world, United States (US), deliberately set out to conquer a large piece of territory overseas, for the first time, in the Pacific. Having conquered and occupied Philippines, the military power of US changed Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean. With the recent military built up of China and its naval power becoming truly demonstrable, China’s geopolitical sway over Manila is becoming increasingly evident. Eventually, once China became the third largest trading partner much has changed from US supremacy several decades ago to the present day.
The prevailing frozen relationship of the US with China, especially after the new president elect, President Trump broke diplomatic tradition from a phone call, antagonizing the “One China Policy”; US has got back few days ago to respect China’s nonnegotiable policy. The new United States Secretary of State, Tillerson has questioned China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. Yet, Trump's affirmation of the existing US policy of maintaining only unofficial ties with Taiwan came at the request of the Chinese president. China thus, has emerged as a formidable player in the Balance of Power game. Ergo, A new world order has begun with interchanging roles between great powers and the US advocating nationalism, despite being its architect; while China praising globalization, having idealized national values in the past. This was evident when President Xi, during his visit to Davos clearly gave leadership toward the case of globalization.
In this regard, understanding Chinese foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific is essential; recollecting that, “Rising China” and “Emerging India” will play a pivotal role in the region.
It was the capture of greater Caribbean by US Navy after the Indian wars which unlocked the power of US from Panama Canal which was the most significant strategic project. Two oceans the Atlantic and Pacific was controlled with US military strength and NATO was the platform to take forward liberal democratic values as a coalition.
In the same manner one could examine the case of China who is seeking a historical claim of the South China Sea to unlock its power in Indian Ocean. Like in the past in the greater Caribbean region, the US held Panama. Today China has OBOR (One Belt One Road) with an $890b investment with 900 projects along the belt and road; a revival of what China had during the past.
This, volatile yet dynamic geopolitical milieu should be understood, in comprehending the geostrategic account of the Indo-Pacific.
The Ocean: Cooperation and Competition
Given that the Indo-Pacific is now turning into the center of gravity in the eyes of the world’s economic, political and strategic interests, security and stability of the oceans are two implications, that should be the focus of the region. As Admiral Suresh Mehta, “the common link binding the diverse sub-systems within the Indo-Pacific is the sea.” Hence, irrespective of the socio-cultural diversities that persist across the oceanic planes, the geostrategic focus on the region should primarily focus on protecting the oceans that interlink the pacific communities. The ocean, in this regard, is both the foundation for cooperation as well as competition. The common threats of piracy and the war of drugs are more cumbersome in relation to the competition that persist over the sea bed that is rich in hydrocarbons which fuels the industrial engines of the world. Prof. Lawrence W. Prabhakar’s framework of the “Indo-Pacific commons” should be a point in focus, as the two triangles: the inner triangle, of countries in South East Asia that enclose the South China Sea; and the outer circle of India, South Korea, Japan and Australia have critical interests in the stability of the region.
What is Sri Lanka’s role in Indo-Pacific considering its geostrategic position?
It is apparent in this regard, that the Indian Ocean will play the most important role due to its busy sea lanes and its rich resources. South China Sea is clearly the most important sea to China as it unlocks to the Indian Ocean where Sri Lanka is a clear geostrategic hub. As noted above, Stratfor Global Intelligence, one of the leading US security think tanks in the world recently published an article about Sri Lanka which explained “Despite its small size Sri Lanka holds substantial strategic value by virtue of its geographic position: it is at the center of Asia’s busiest maritime routes and has a wealth of natural deep harbours”.
From ancient days Sri Lanka’s attractive geographical location has been discussed by many historians and scholars. Sri Lanka sitting at the center of the new Maritime Silk Road and initiative launched under OBOR will play a pivotal role.
In terms of connectivity and economic cooperation Sri Lanka’s geostrategic hub location will be an essential factor in the Indo Pacific, especially in Indian Ocean.
Capitalizing on Sri Lanka’s physical location and its natural harbors, the country is better placed than any other nation in South Asia to pursue the agenda of being a ‘transshipment hub’. At the moment according to the American Association for Port Authorities, Colombo port is one of the leading ports in the world and is ranked 80th in terms of the total cargo volume and the 29th in terms of container traffic in 2011. Colombo port handles around 49,615 metric tons of cargo volume per year and 3,651,963 TEUs of container traffic annually. It is estimated that about 70% of the transshipment cargo in the container traffic in Colombo Port belong to India.
In Sri Lanka, International Trade is a principal mode of market expansion, acquiring a greater integration to the world economy. Therefore, Sri Lanka pursues these objectives at different levels through three bilateral agreements; India, Pakistan and Iran, three regional agreements; South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) Agreement, and the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA) and BIMSTEC.
India-Sri Lanka FTA, which came into being in 2000, is the very first free trade agreement to both countries. It led to a new depth in economic relations of both countries by quadrupling the
volume of bi-lateral trade. In the aftermath of the agreement, India emerged as Sri Lanka’s third largest export destination and the largest import destination.
Recently World Economic Forum identified Sri Lanka as one of the richest South Asian Nation in terms of per capita income and high literacy rate. Sri Lanka is moved to tier 2 Efficiency Driven Economy in its Global Competitiveness Index. The only South Asian nation to move to tier 2 as most others still remain in tier 1, factor driven economies.
However to achieve the best results from its geostrategic location in Indo-Pacific Sri Lanka needs to address its internal political-economic challenges as a priority.
However Sri Lanka has several challenges. The bipartisan political model is created by President and Prime Minister from two different political establishments is still at its infancy and still the model needs to mature to reap benefit. This is the first challenge. Second its poverty rate is at 27% according to President Sirisena, the same reason he declared 2017 to eradicate poverty. Even India and many other South Asian countries have high poverty rates which should be addressed. Regional and extra regional models should make poverty alleviation a priority. Without benefiting the public who is living in poverty these discussions could be seen by them as unfruitful. Eradicating poverty, creating decent jobs, health and education is key to synergizing integration and connectivity.
Thus, Sri Lanka as a regional hub in Indian Ocean has a huge role to offer Indo-Pacific in terms of economic and trade cooperation and requires addressing its internal challenges in doing so.
Recommendations: Sri Lanka’s foreign policy according to President Sirisena is “Asia centric balanced” and how best we could apply to Indo-pacific for peaceful cooperation?
President Sirisena who came to power two years ago spelled out his foreign policy as “Asia centric balanced”. He has clearly re-calibrated and achieved a balance between the West and East during his short time in office.
Geopolitical tension between exiting powers, rising China and emerging India has been clearly felt in the island nation. Sri Lanka should clearly maintain the equidistant foreign policy with all these powers. In applying its foreign policy to Indo-Pacific region Sri Lanka could develop peaceful cooperation with all nations practicing its balanced view.
Sri Lanka and India relationship is deep and it is often lost in the mist of time according to Lakshman Kadirgamar. The two nations have been through many challenges to strengthen their relationship. Some speculative news takes the two nations apart and antagonize the rich relationship. The recent CIA declassified info suggest India has forcibly introduced the Indo-Lanka accord to the then President. However in the modern day India with Modi’s leadership has chosen a brilliant initiative the neighborhood first policy. This gives priority for the regional nations to spur its growth with India.
Resolving regional integration should be a top priority for India and India’s neighbors. We could then look at extra regional as this is also vital. SAARC should be looked at from a positive angle despite bilateral disputes. Conflict management mechanisms should be built to the system as many of these issues take long time to heal. Extra regional players could also assist in this process.
Japan, another nation which has helped Sri Lanka at many difficult times is another strategic partner, starting from Sri Lankan President Jayawardena’s San Francisco speech pleading the world to forgive Japan. During Asian Tsunami Japan was a stupendous donor to rebuild the coastal belt of Sri Lanka, an important geostrategic environment for the Indo-Pacific.
Japan regards Sri Lanka as a maritime security partner while it is promoting maritime security co-operation with India. Stronger Japan-Sri Lanka-India trilateral relationship will be an important factor to create a responsible behavior and peaceful cooperation in Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka to maintain its equidistant foreign policy it will need to counter aggressions by any power. The trilateral relationship such as Japan-Sri Lanka-India will help to counter such instances.
According to Dr.Satoru Nagoa our Senior Fellow at INSS in his latest paper Changing US-China Power Balance and the Role of Japan-Sri Lanka-India Co-operation he explains for a long time, bilateral alliances led by the United States such as Japan–US, US–South Korea, US–Philippines, US–Australia have maintained order in the Pacific. However, despite the many US alliances, a deep defence relationship is lacking. For example, both Japan and Australia are US allies, but they share no close mutual security relations. This system would function effectively if the United States had sufficient military resources to tackle all the looming difficulties in this region.
However, because US military resources have been declining, the “old” bilateral system is insufficient to maintain peace and order in this region. There is a need for an alternative system that can function better in changed circumstances. Therefore, a new system is currently emerging gradually. Several multinational security co-operation arrangements have been recently formed among Japan– India–US, Japan–US–Australia, Japan–India–US–Australia–Singapore, and other countries.
In this context Japan-Sri Lanka-India relations can be built. Japan has a role as a stable supporter for Sri Lanka and a strong supporter for India’s rise. Japan can be an important stabilizer for cordial Sri Lanka – India relations and establishment of a Japan – Sri Lanka – India strategic dialogue.
Let me conclude with an article I saw before I got into the flight to attend this important dialogue, according to P.K Balachandran recent article in The New India Express some indian projects sponsored by state such as $7.5m ambulance service is seen as Trojan Horse of RAW and Lankan nationalists however justified their stand saying that India should consider its aid to Lanka not as charity but just reparation for the harm it did promoting Tamil terror and then trying to divide the country..”. With such negative comments around we need to see the best options to strengthen Indo-Sri Lanka relationship thinking of the future. In this context extra regional assistance to strengthen relationship between Indo-Lanka should be considered.