Role of Sri Lanka is Asia's Changing Geopolitics

A Joint webinar on “Role of Sri Lanka in Asia’s Changing Geopolitics” was held on 26th of June 2020 by Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSL) in partnership with the Nepal Institute of International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), where the speaker was Admiral (Prof.) Jayanath Colombage, the Director General of INSSSL. He began with the Sri Lankan narrative of battling the pandemic, as that can be taken as example by other countries in Asia. He mentioned that as at the moment there are a total of 2,000 cases of COVID in the He mentioned that only 11 deaths have occurred in Sri Lanka due to COVID which is just 0.5% which is another great achievement. The President acted on advice from a scientist and appointed an action committee on the 26th of January. Sri Lanka was able to maintain a systematic quarantine process long before WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. Since the Sri Lankan parliament was dissolved in March, the country has been run by the officials appointed by the president and not the parliamentarians. Sri Lanka has given priority to the right to life over human rights. The Swedish government only gave guidelines to tackle the COVID-19 issues and did not intervene directly. In Sri Lanka, government intervention has allowed successful management of the pandemic as opposed to many western states. Within the process, Sri Lanka is becoming self-sufficient and is now making masks and exporting to USA and Europe. This is a good time to learn from each other and develop locally.

Sri Lanka’s relations with Asians do matter. The Indian Ocean is an important area for World Trade. Belt and Road Initiative by China, China-Pakistan economic corridor are examples of initiatives in the Indian Ocean Region. The Indian Ocean is also one of the most militarized zones in the world with many military ships being stationed in the Indian Ocean. This is a dangerous situation for Sri Lanka to be in. Sri Lanka being a small country and not a super power means that we might be forced to choose between countries and to and hedge between countries. This is where Sri Lanka has to work with other small countries like Nepal and find a solution to this situation. One way to overcome the dilemma is a rules based order. Sri Lanka will be following a neutral non-aligned foreign policy in the future as well. Special attention will be made to ensure that India’s interest will not be harmed. There might be a financial or economic corporation. Belt and road initiative is not a military strategy therefore we are not worried about it. Sri Lanka has to develop and we need to have quality infrastructure. Controversial port Hambantota was started and completed much before the Belt and road initiative was launched. Port City is a part of the belt and road and initiative. Admiral Colombage further stated “We don’t want to bandwagon only with China. We would like to have multiple investments coming in even for the Port City”. He gave his opinion on the MCC and identified it as a military strategy. He noted that if certain clauses are amended Sri Lanka will give the full consent to it.

He clarified a popular misinterpretation of identifying Sri Lanka being in a debt trap. He mentioned, “we were in debt to bilateral donors, multi-lateral donors and international donors” Our debt is 57 billion USD and our debt to China is just 9 billion USD. We have to survive and service our debt. It is our own problem.” This issue was further worsened by the Easter attacks last year and COVID 19 this year.

Modi insured the neighborhood first policy. Admiral Colombage believes that India has changed since they trained LTTE. He went on to say “India is playing special attention to its neighborhood. They are more sensitive to their neighborhood than ever before.” He identified India as the black swan in the region. India is moving fast and we have to benefit from that. He appreciated initiatives like SAGAR, where everyone should rise and assure collective security. Moreover, he highlighted the importance of Intelligence sharing among regional states.

Admiral was determined and clear that “Trincomalee harbor is ours. we have given a portion of the Trincomlee harbor which is called the oil tank farm to the Indian Oil Company in 2002. There are 100 tanks and they are only using 15.” Discussions are going on with regard to the rest of tanks to be maintained by Sri Lanka. Trincomalee is a very beautiful natural harbor but because of the tug of war between the strategic interest, we have not been able to really develop this into a world class harbor to suit the current condition. It was a world class harbor in the 1940’s. Sri Lanka is mindful of national strategic assets. He clearly stated that Sri Lanka will never surrender sovereignty. In terms of ongoing tensions between India and China, he pointed out the need to have political dialogue. He stated that “we are not part of that conflict and we do not want to be part of that conflict”. However, if the tension escalates it will be the developing countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal that will face long term trouble, trying to balance relations.

Compiled by - Dinuk Dharmasena