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“No Military Alliances With Or Making Our Bases Available to Foreign Countries” -Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

Sri Lanka will convene an international conference to discuss improvements in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to ensure freedom of navigation which is vital for orderly economic growth and security of commerce in the Indian Ocean Region, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesighe said here on Thursday.

Addressing the Second Indian Ocean Conference organized by the India Foundation, Wickremesinghe said: “ Articles 34 – 56 of UNCLOS are insufficient to deal with the concerns that are related to freedom navigation in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, Sri Lanka intends working with all our partners in creating a shared vision for economic and security engagement. We remain convinced that a code of conduct that ensures the freedom of navigation in our Ocean will be an essential component of this vision. In this regard Sri Lanka will soon commence exploratory discussions on convening a meeting to deliberate on a stable legal order on freedom of navigation and over flight in the Indian Ocean.”

“Taking such a course of action will enable the littoral states to take the initiative to manage competition and determine our own fate,” he added.

“We believe that maintaining the Freedom of Navigation is of paramount importance for Sri Lanka to become the Hub in the Indian Ocean. It is only then that we can reap the full benefits of our strategic location as well as the availability of ports on all coasts and two international airports with good land connectivity. The air and sea connectivity will naturally promote logistics. Colombo will also be a center for offshore finance and business. Finally Sri Lanka will offer a competitive platform for manufacturing and services,” Wickremesinghe said.

“We will continue to take a leading role, in bringing our partners in the Indian Ocean together to deliberate on issues of importance to all of us,” he added.

No Militarization of Lankan Ports

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister reiterated his country’s resolve not to allow the use of its ports as a military base by another country.

“Let me refer to Sri Lanka’s decision to develop its major sea ports, especially the Hambantota port which some claim to be a military base. I state clearly that Sri Lanka’s Government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena does not enter into military alliances with any country or make our bases available to foreign countries. We will continue military cooperation such as training, supply of equipment and taking part in joint exercises with friendly countries. Only the Sri Lanka Armed Forces have the responsibility for military activities in our Ports and Airports. We are also working with foreign private investors on the commercial development of our ports.”

Future Lies in Asia

Wickremesinghe said that the future of the world lies in Asia. The HSBC’s forecast for 2050 says that 19 countries from Asia will be the largest economies by that time. By 2030 Asia is expected to surpass the West in terms of Global power, based on population, GDP, technology and military spending. 2016 Annual meeting of the Global Future Council convened by the World Economic Forum concluded that by 2030 there will not be a single hegemonic force, instead there will be a multipolar world – USA, China, India, Germany, Japan, Russia as the key players.

These predictions are reassured by the recent Price WaterHouse Coopers (PWC) Report: World in 2050. It concludes that nine countries (Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Iran) out of 32, are predicted to be leading economies of the world, will be from the Indian Ocean Region. This reality will increase our strategic importance in the globe.

In practical terms, some countries in Asia have already taken over from the advanced Western countries in purchasing power parity. Despite projected slowdown, it is predicted that the Chinese economy will supersede the US economy by 2028. India has shown great potential to become the second largest economy in the world in terms of Purchasing Power Parity by 2050. Indonesia and Malaysia are also predicted to achieve remarkable rates in economic growth and to have great potential to overtake some of the western countries in the Purchasing Power Parity by 2030.

ASEAN is poised to cover thirty percent of the global GDP, once the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement among the ASEAN countries is concluded.

South Asia Lags Behind

But the Sri Lankan Prime Minister regretted that South Asia has been lagging behind.
“Intra trade in the Indian Ocean region including the Bay of Bengal remains low. For example, South Asia remains the least economically integrated region in the world. Unlike the European and Pacific nations, there is an absence of political will to promote Indian Ocean Economic Cooperation more specificially, trade liberalization and connectivity. Trade and connectivity are central to achieving and maintaining a high regional growth rate.”

“The IORA Summit in Jakarta this year also focused on increasing economic and strategic integration of the region. The Jakarta Concord agreed to at this IORA meeting contains a commitment to enhance trade and investments in the region by increasing intra IORA flow of goods, services and investments and continuing regulatory reforms to promote competitiveness investments and ease of doing business.”
“Therefore, let us make a start by implementing IORA Action Plan 2017-2027 recommendations on trade and investment proposals within the next four years. The plan envisages organizing capacity building and technical support for regional trade and investments with focus on facilitating and reducing barriers.”

“Let this conference recommend to IORA the need for a credible strategy which will include: preventing protectionist trade measures; implementing ease of doing business measures; commitment to the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement; remove high tariffs – para tariffs and non tariff barriers over agreed time period.”

Making Capital Available

Stressing the need to address the issue of the shortage of capital in the region, Wickremesinghe said: “Businesses in the South Asian Region must grow for intra-regional trade to develop. These Businesses require capital for expansion, which is a scarce commodity in the region. This is why I have called for the establishment of an Indian Ocean Development Fund. This Fund will make financial resources available to National Development Banks which will promote growth and expansion in the region by providing capital for business expansion.”

Prospects of Blue Economy

Looking at the prospects of the Blue Economy ,Wickremesinghe said: “In Jakarta, IORA also emphasized on the Blue Economy of the Indian Ocean. While other oceans in the globe are experiencing a decline of its fish stocks, that trend is not visible in the Indian Ocean. As I speak today, many fishing fleets of countries, where fish trade is an industry continue to harvest fish stocks in the Indian Ocean. These fish stocks are of great and growing importance to the bordering countries for domestic consumption and export.

It is estimated that 40 % of the world offshore oil production comes from the Indian Ocean with large reserves of hydrocarbons being tapped in the offshore areas of Saudi Arabia, Iran, India and Western Australia.”

“Beach sands rich in heavy minerals and offshore placer deposit are actively excavated by Sri Lanka and other bordering countries. The recent UN Conference on Oceans concluded that preserving the health of the oceans is vital for the existence of mankind.”

“In order to avoid irreversible damage to the Oceans, IORA must coordinate efforts by all member countries to address overfishing, pollution from offshore and land-based activities, biodiversity and habitat loss.”

Armed Conflicts and Militarization

Turning to the dangers posed by armed conflicts in the IOR, the Sri Lankan Prime Minster said: “The creation of wealth and enhanced economic activity in the Indian Ocean region will not only bring benefits but will pose enormous security challenges to all of us. It is evident that most of the world’s armed conflicts are presently located in the Indian Ocean region.”

“The waters of the Indian Ocean are also home to continually evolving strategic developments, including the rise of regional powers with nuclear capabilities. Conflicts in the Gulf, unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan, rise of violent extremism, growing incidents of piracy in and around the Horn of Africa loom over our region. Given the rising conflicts in the Middle East and West Asia, world’s major powers have deployed substantial military forces in that part of the Indian Ocean Region.”

“In terms of the Maritime build up taking place in the Indian Ocean, we see major players such as India, Australia, USA, China, and Japan envisaging various projects ranging from ocean excavation to placing remote sensors for ocean research. The latter three are increasing their forward naval presence. Naval power will play a greater role in the regional maritime affairs. This will in turn lead to Naval power competitions, with plans for sea control as well as sea denials.”

As you would be aware, there are 10 critical choke points in the Indian Ocean that remain vulnerable to air and maritime encounters and possible terrorist attacks by non-state actors. Given the rising conflicts in the Middle East and West Asia, world’s major powers have deployed substantial military forces in the Indian Ocean Region. This trend will continue for some more time until the world community gets together and resolve the causes for these conflicts.