With Sri Lanka’s proposal at the 26th UN General Assembly sessions to declare the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace (IOZOP) now submerged in history, these seas have seen an escalation of tension and muscle-flexing by countries with large navies and an eye for securing trade routes in the future. All said and done about [...]


Indian Ocean: Need for a National Security Advisor


With Sri Lanka’s proposal at the 26th UN General Assembly sessions to declare the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace (IOZOP) now submerged in history, these seas have seen an escalation of tension and muscle-flexing by countries with large navies and an eye for securing trade routes in the future. All said and done about modern long distance transportation, maritime transportation is still seen as the mode of moving goods in the future.

When Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike made that proposal in 1971 to determine the limits of airspace and the ocean floor, India was not happy with the adoption of a Resolution. India felt it had the legitimate right to control the Ocean named after it. But its strategists of yesteryear did not anticipate at the time, the emergence of a blue water navy by China at the turn of the century.

There are the warships of the US-India-Japan axis zigzagging these waters to keep the PLA-N, the Chinese navy, from grabbing all the ports in the area and establishing their presence, nay their dominance. If the Indian Ocean is to service more than half the world’s population by way of trade, and the supply of energy to fuel the economies therein, the sea lanes need to be secured.

At this week’s Track 1.5 conference in Colombo organised by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the President of Sri Lanka had nothing to say. He is seemingly too embroiled in domestic compulsions. The Prime Minister, however, was to speak of this issue that relates to the future of this country. He was to say, what he said earlier in the week at the Oxford Union, that advantage must be taken of the currently “somewhat benign strategic atmosphere” in the region to create a maritime order that can withstand future challenges that could emerge.

Just last month, speaking on the same topic in Viet Nam, he asked the pertinent question; should countries like Sri Lanka be expected to take a stand in this big power rivalry in the waters that surround us.

In our editorial of September 2 this year, we recommended that it was time Sri Lanka had a high calibre National Security Minister or Adviser in the PMO to monitor the ‘big picture’ around the Indian Ocean – so that it is not caught wrong- footed in the not too distant future as big nations play their cards, and the stakes are very high.

Energy for the future

With the price of fuel rising every month, related to the geopolitical issues of the Indian Ocean is Sri Lanka’s exploration of its marine resources. Apart from the traditional fisheries, there has been a long on and off search for oil and natural gas. Imagine a future where Sri Lanka is self-sufficient in oil!

The Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government declared an Economic Zone, which included a vast sea area around the island and encompassed a size many times the landmass of the country. That Government also took a shot at searching for oil and gas in the Mannar Basin (at Pesalai) with the help of the Soviet Union. The then Opposition pooh-poohed the initial effort because the Soviet Union was not considered an expert in the field of oil exploration. Today, its successor the Russian Federation is a major player in oil and natural gas that has fuelled its economy to great heights.

In 1978, the J.R. Jayewardene Government resumed the abandoned efforts and in 1984, a Canadian company was called in to do a study. But these forays have been in fits and starts going nowhere in the end. Today, two French industry giants — Total, the world’s fourth largest oil and gas company, and Schlumberger, the world’s leading provider of technology for reservoir characterisation, drilling, production and processing to the oil industry — are engaged in a new survey around the country. These will be around the Mannar Basin and the Cauvery Basin in the northwest of the country.

Data collected show the discovery of deposits of natural gas. The studies include three dimensional (3D) seismic data on 1,750 square km around these areas of the northern part of the island. Apart from these hi-tech scientific studies, the humble villager in and around Mannar knows only too well that nothing grows in the arid soil on the mainland. They attribute this to the existence of oil underground – like Arabia and the desert.

This area for decades was subject to the Northern separatist conflict and LTTE control, which at the time raised suspicions in the South as to why the Western powers were so interested in supporting the LTTE. It was a suspicion that could not be easily dismissed.

With the price of oil rising in the world market and a chunk of the country’s foreign exchange going to pay the oil import bill, the exploitation of these resources, if any, seems a sound option. It is said that the Government is planning to call for bids to start serious oil exploration work. Already, the Government has signed a Petroleum Research Agreement in 2008 (before the Sri Lankan conflict ended) with Cairn India to explore and produce hydro-carbon and natural gas in Mannar with the production shares divided between Sri Lanka and the company calculated by a method called Investment Multiple (IM), a ratio of accumulated Net Cash income to accumulated investment.

Petroleum Development Secretariat officials were in Russia last week to discuss the abandoned exploration work of the 1970s by the former Soviet Union with their counterparts. The Russians are said to be good at shallow water drilling.

The problem with oil and gas discoveries is that it can be a double-edged sword. The world can see what has happened in West Asia and the Arabian Gulf. These areas have been turned upside down because of the battle for these fossil fuels. The multinational companies of the West, hand-in-glove with their respective Governments, make a beeline to the spot. Unless sovereign Governments in the area play ball with them, they stir the pot until they get a firm foothold.

While the cost-benefit factor must surely be weighed by the authorities, the fact is, the world is moving away from fossil fuels into what is commonly termed as ‘clean energy’ – wind and solar power. Sri Lanka has plenty of wind and sun and it is hoped that the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy would be bolstered with greater funds voted in the forthcoming Budget. For starters, the Ministry of Housing should have solar panels on the mega projects it has started so as to cut down on the country’s future oil bill. These natural resources – the energy of the future — are there aplenty in sunny, windy Sri Lanka.

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