Can Sri Lanka be a hub – and haven – in the Indian Ocean?


In the context of shifts in the global balance of power and the new emphasis on the Indian Ocean as a region of strategic importance, there has been an urgent need for broader discourse in Sri Lanka on the impact of these developments, particularly in relation to foreign policy formulation.

The unfortunate consequences of the lack of such discussion have been keenly felt in recent times, with policy being shaped in an ad hoc manner, in reaction to situations rather than in anticipation of them.

The tilt towards India and China as emerging power centres in global politics, and how Sri Lanka adjusts to its ramifications, have not been a special focus of attention. This is in spite of the country having had links with both Asian powers going back to ancient times, and friendly relations strengthened by people-to-people contacts and other bonds of religion and culture down the ages.
In a new series of open-ended discussions launched on Friday, the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) has attempted to address this lacuna.

The first session was attended by a group of around 30 comprising mainly BCIS students, a few academics and even a few schoolchildren.  They engaged in a spirited discussion on the topic of the “Future of the Indian Ocean – Geopolitics and Sri Lanka.”  The informal monthly gatherings to discuss issues relating to international relations, or “IR evenings” as they are called, are open to the public.

There were no policymakers or diplomats present at this discussion. Policy makers especially stand to  benefit from the research-and-analysis related resources of institutions such as the Kadirgamar Institute and the BCIS. Prof. W.I Siriweera, BCIS Director, mentioned the hope of developing the BCIS as a main ‘think tank’ on international relations issues.
Dr Harinda Vidanage, former BCIS director who led Friday’s discussion, set the tone with his assertion that Sri Lanka is ‘at the centre of the Indian Ocean,’ but that ‘centres’ are not just geographical. Centres are made discursively and through connections that are made. Sri Lanka’s aspirations to be a ‘hub’ in the region could be ‘a little problematic’ if it was assumed that this would come about simply by virtue of geographic location, he suggested.

Sri Lanka would have to market itself as a hub, and show what it could offer that others (e.g. India) could not. We are competing with other hubs, such as Myanmar which is generating much interest .Hillary Clinton has flown to Myanmar more times than to any other state in the recent past he said. Myanmar was ‘not a democracy but everyone is supporting it’ he observed, with a hint of irony. He suggested that for Sri Lanka in the post-war context there was a need for a policy shift ‘more aligned with China, Russia and Latin America.’

On the concept of Sri Lanka as a hub, he argued that the idea of a ‘peace zone’ is something ‘embedded in us.’ “We
should promote (the idea of) a hub as a haven.”  This would be in the context of a security policy that ensures co-existence in the Indian Ocean. Owing to its geographical location Sri Lanka has historically been a meeting place for all kinds of peoples, and their rivals.

Dr. Vidanage outlined the developments that made the Indian Ocean the ‘most active global space,’ sandwiched between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. There seemed to be echoes of Robert Kaplan (‘Monsoon – The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power’) in his references to the ‘choke points’ in the energy supply routes, located at the Strait of Hormuz through which 40 percent of global oil cargo passed, and the Strait of Malacca. A tremendous increase in naval and merchant sailing could be expected with the energy requirements of both India and China due to triple in the next 50 years, or less.

There was a major energy race taking place with both states scouring for oil all over the world. The Chinese, Indian and US navies were also competing for supremacy in the region Vidanage said. The US was deploying 60 per cent of its naval assets in the Asia Pacific, China was sending ships, India was re-fleeting.

These states were also engaging in surveillance operations in the region using cutting edge technology. In diplomacy there was a shift from ‘hard power’ to the concept of ‘smart’ or ‘soft power.’

The question of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy priorities repeatedly came up during the discussion that followed.  How realistic was the shift towards Russia and China, when there was trade dependency on the West?

How relevant was the concept of Non Alignment in the light of new developments? There were comments on the Western emphasis on reforms in governance etc for Sri Lanka, and the fact that this was not a priority for China, which was not concerned with other countries’ mechanisms of governance.

It was observed by one participant that the concept of the Indian Ocean as a Peace Zone was originally proposed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, but that ‘others hijacked it.’ “We did not define it properly’ he noted. Other points commented on were, the need to ‘identify our friends,’ the need to understand the changes in and around the Indian Ocean, the need to understand how the West functions, and that alliances are never stable. India’s focus on projects in the North and East of the country and the government’s decision to turn down India’s offer to develop the Palali airport were also touched on.

It was observed that there was no single centre of power now, but that the traditional hegemon is ‘still there.’ The waning of western power is not happening as fast as we think. Vidanage noted that the US finds India the ‘last line of defence’ for democracy, in the matter of containing China and also the spread of fundamentalism. A participant observed that there was a need to establish diplomatic relations with many more countries – in Africa and Latin America for instance – if Sri Lanka was to market itself as a true hub.  Sri Lanka could not ‘fight’ with any.

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