The word “hub” is often in use these days with reference to Sri Lanka, from the geography-linked concept of a “maritime hub” in the Indian Ocean to the six hub plan of national development adopted by the former government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, namely maritime, aviation, commercial, energy, knowledge and tourism. The hub plan appears to [...]

Sunday Times 2

Operationalising the hub


The word “hub” is often in use these days with reference to Sri Lanka, from the geography-linked concept of a “maritime hub” in the Indian Ocean to the six hub plan of national development adopted by the former government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, namely maritime, aviation, commercial, energy, knowledge and tourism. The hub plan appears to derive from historical experience and the local conditions that ensured the success of Lanka’s ancient ports. It was not just geographical positioning, but also the ability of the home country to provide for the security of its harbours, transparent customing and logistical arrangements to attract foreign merchants from diverse origins. Lanka’s early rulers also pursued a policy of friendship with all, hence the favourable notices from East and West.

Hambantota Port: The island’s natural bounty provided repair facilities for the visiting vessels.

The island’s natural bounty provided repair facilities for the visiting vessels, food and water. To allay the superstitions of sailors at the mercy of monsoon winds, the temple, kovil and mosque were in close proximity to the harbour. A healthy environment, friendly hosts, leisure and pilgrimage activities like Sigiriya or Sri Pada were positive assets. Thus, commerce, diplomacy, knowledge, tourism all intertwined with the island hub as its centre of activity, able to defend its position against the competition from its great neighbour in the North.

Today, with globalization and the rise of all manner of new threats, connectivity with the outside world has become increasingly difficult to manage. The question that arises is how Sri Lanka, given its geographical endowment, can best operationalize the “hub” concept and balance the synergies which come in the wake of globalization while still retaining the independent manoeverability required to leverage its national interests?

In contemporary times, history will record that the Rajapaksa hub plan centred around infrastructure, including the building of a modern harbor and airport with multi lane highways in Hambantota, much criticized today for not having attracted any sizeable business. To be fair, there had been a strategic thrust to this proposal from an earlier time, to establish an alternative international airport with different weather conditions to Katunayake. Yet why was there no business plan to operationalize the costly new ports infrastructure? Was this due to a lack of follow-up planning or some strategic block arising out of the competition between the two rising giants of Asia, China and India? Gwadar port in Pakistan, also built by the Chinese, (sometimes referred to by commentators along with Hambantota in the context of the String of Pearls conspiracy), avoided controversy by awarding its management to a Singaporean operator before it reverted to the Chinese company now in charge.

lthough there is hardly any reference today to the Letters of Exchange attached to the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, agreements meant to remain secret but which came to light in full public controversy, there is inscribed a permanent “strategic block” on Sri Lanka ports that “they will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.” Could the arrival of a submarine constitute “military” use? Here, one answer is to build a set of rules of conduct which would cover all visiting naval vessels, as once was done in respect of vessels carrying nuclear weapons, and include therein the practice of prior notification.

The reference to Sri Lanka as the “maritime hub” in the Indian Ocean in the context of the competition between India and China is argued as a lesson for Sri Lanka to carefully balance these pressures in order to avoid being sucked into disputes beyond its control. Yet what has transpired over the last few years is that India and China appear to have carved out different spheres of operation in the north and south of Sri Lanka, which can hardly be good for the country. What may be more beneficial is to create opportunities for both India and China to work together with Sri Lanka to jointly develop business opportunities. Thus the current revised plan for the Port City as a joint venture between Sri Lanka and a Chinese entity which will be open to Indian investment, is an important new type of arrangement, the success of which will have a wide bearing. It may be worthwhile to see whether a similar arrangement could be worked out for the 1000 acres which have been allotted to China for industrial development zone in the south, which could be open to Indian participation as well. However clearly there are limits to this kind of cooperation since India is hardly likely to welcome Chinese participation in its sphere of influence in the North especially in the development of ports close to the Indian landmass.

This article argues that to truly operationalize the “hub” concept replete with multiple poles, the need of the hour is to identify areas of cooperation which would involve collaboration jointly with both India and China. Renewable energy for instance is an area where both India and China are making great headway and tapping renewables is likely to be the key to Sri Lanka’s growing energy needs with the objective also of ensuring that no one in the population is left behind. Yet the new policy thinking is not without its challenges. There is a proposal for a large wind farm in Mannar which may come into conflict with the path of the huge bird migration into Vankalai, one of the island’s best nature reserves.

Apart from the “multiple pole” hub, it is worth noting that since the end of the armed conflict in the island in 2009, a new hub of strategic interest is opening up around Mannar as the closest point to India which could be bridged for either road or rail connection. The restoration of the rail track will permit services to reopen between Talaimannar and Rameswaram which once brought thousands of indentured labour from South India to work on the newly opened commercial plantations. The re-opening of this route will facilitate a reverse flow, the return of the Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu, in all dignity, which will be a huge public relations success for both countries if they manage to pull it off, given the trauma of the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe.

The diaries of colonial officials record the period of the indentured labour as carrying dreaded memories for the Sri Lankans since the visitors brought cholera and other diseases which infected villages on the route, decimated their populations and destroyed traditional ways of life. Historical distrust, combined with contemporary problems such as the threat of pandemics and refugee turmoil, have cast a shadow on moves to foster greater economic connectivity between the island and the subcontinent. Hence the increasing public opposition in Sri Lanka to the signing of ETCA and the building of a bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka, projects endorsed at the highest political levels on both sides. From the inception, Sri Lanka’s archaeologists have underlined the value of the island’s destiny at the far end of a continent (terminal destination) from whence there is only ocean southwards, which has resulted in the island becoming a repository of archaeological evidence. However sociologists tend to stress on the cultural underpinnings between Sri Lanka and India and suggest that Sri Lanka and the southern states of India form a “common cultural zone”. In this view the Palk Strait represents a “unifying” factor, refuting the reality of the present state of tension in these Straits where hundreds of Indian vessels have been found to be poaching in Sri Lanka waters and worse still, bottom trawling and destroying the marine seabed.

Most recently, the Indian Prime Minister has proposed a Common Economic Zone between the two countries. Such a proposal could make Mannar the centre pole from the Sri Lankan side and focus attention for example on joint development of the petroleum resources in the Mannar basin. Other countries have resolved similar bilateral difficulties on the sharing of resources through establishing joint ventures at the private sector level. Malaysia and Thailand for example have set aside their disputes over territorial waters to establish a joint venture for oil exploration, headed by private sector experts nominated from both countries to represent their interests, where it is clearly understood that profit not politics drives the venture. However proposals for greater economic connectivity would have to first overcome the present adverse reaction which has set in due to lack of public consultation over both ETCA and the Bridge, upsetting the equilibrium in India-Sri Lanka relations which had seemingly taken a positive direction when the armed conflict was brought to an end in 2009 without Indian interference.

Operationalizing the “hub” will impact on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the lead institution in economic outreach, and effect the manner of its carrying out business. With globalization, modern counterparts are moving away from bilateral diplomacy to regional and multilateral diplomacy. These institutional winds of change have somewhat by-passed Sri Lanka due to the slow pace of integration in SAARC and the pre-occupation with the armed conflict and the tsunami crisis. In comparison, in South East Asia most of the diplomatic attention is taken up by regional and international meetings and dialogues. Sri Lanka must anchor any new directions in foreign policy management for the longer term through bi-party parliamentary consultations. The need of the hour is to promote consensual policy- making in the Scandinavian tradition rather than foster opposition for the sake of unseating the government which is the British tradition, that has hobbled rather than promoted national development. (The writer is a retired Sri Lanka Foreign Service Ambassador)

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