The vision of Sri Lanka as an Indian Ocean state has been evolving over the years. Initially this notion was familiar mainly to archaeologists and historians dealing with the material evidence found in ancient sites like Mantai as well as written accounts, oral stories, maps, etc from early foreign sources, East and West. At independence, [...]

Sunday Times 2

Sri Lanka and Indian Ocean foreign policy


The vision of Sri Lanka as an Indian Ocean state has been evolving over the years. Initially this notion was familiar mainly to archaeologists and historians dealing with the material evidence found in ancient sites like Mantai as well as written accounts, oral stories, maps, etc from early foreign sources, East and West.

At independence, Sri Lankan leaders were focused on bilateral issues in the immediate horizon, balancing defence ties with the departing colonial power and taking stock of the powerful new Indian state. There was a comfort zone in retaining the colonial connection through such associations as the Commonwealth and the Colombo Plan. However, with India, the early negotiations were characterised by a process of separation, demarcation of the maritime boundary, the sovereignty of Kachchativu and citizenship for the Indian indentured labour. Hailed as an Agreement on Friendly Frontiers, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of June 1974 signed by the Prime Ministers of India and Sri Lanka and the subsequent Agreement of March 1976, established the maritime boundaries of the two countries in the Historic Waters in the Gulf of Mannar, Palk Strait and the Palk Bay. The agreements also unequivocally declared that each country shall have sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction and control over the waters, the islands, the continental shelf and its subsoil, falling on its own side of the agreed boundary.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinge and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: focussed on bilateral issues.

It was only much later, in the 1990’s, after India’s economic liberalisation, that a different process, one of economic integration, began with the signing of the bilateral free trade agreement. Today, bilateral economic integration is growing exponentially on account of neighbourhood policies and, India’s emergence as a rising giant in Asia, but also because of the inability of SAARC to develop its full economic potential. SAARC has however embedded itself in the social fabric through people to people contacts at many levels, so that by and large the South Asian identity is well recognised in Sri Lanka.

In the 1970’s, it was Sri Lanka’s active participation in the UN Law of the Sea negotiations which gave the thrust to its vision as an Indian Ocean state. Diplomatic negotiations led by the foreign ministry bore significant results for Sri Lanka, pushing her territory out to an area of seabed the extent of which is said to be about 25 times the land territory. Sri Lanka’s leadership in the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) during this period strengthened the island’s connections with the African continent and the western Indian Ocean, giving rise to several initiatives of Afro-Asian solidarity. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, as the first woman Prime Minister in the world, was hailed throughout Africa enabling broad country recognition for the island in that continent.

However, it’s worth considering why some early political initiatives in the Indian Ocean did not stand the test of time like the Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IOPZ). IOPZ was seen as confronting Western military bases such as at Diego Garcia and blocking freedom of navigation in key sea lanes. Eventually the recourse to military bases would become obsolete with the development of new ship technologies and ability to stay at sea for longer periods and IOPZ also faded away.

In terms of formulating an Indian Ocean policy, the Sri Lanka Institute for International Relations (now known as the Lakshman Kadirgarmar Institute) was given the task during its fledgling days, to identify the early influences on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and its role in the world. As part of this research on the island’s maritime identity and the potential of maritime diplomacy, the institute published in 2003 a revised reprint of the collection of articles which had appeared in 1990 under the title Sri Lanka and the Silk Road of the Sea, to celebrate the arrival in Sri Lanka of the UNESCO Maritime Silk Route expedition. While the 1990 publication had relied on historical and archaeological evidence, by the time of the 2003 reprint, the framework had already taken on new dimensions referred to in a new preface, the advent of the digital era, new technologies of rapid communications and Sri Lanka’s participation in regional diplomatic ventures like Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IORAC) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

Senake Bandaranayake’s definition of the key foundations for policy making remains valid. He mentioned the internal factors, such as the island’s existence as a “clearly demarcated and independent geopolitical and geocultural entity during a period of nearly two and a half millennia; a conservationist role appropriate to its terminal location as repository of longstanding traditions belonging to the South Asian cultural matrix” while the external factors were the island’s openness to countries and cultures beyond the South Asian region and its function as a nodal centre of transoceanic communications.

In 2013, the National Trust published Maritime Heritage of Lanka, ancient ports and harbours dealing with Sri Lanka’s relationship with the surrounding seas, from the perspectives of history, geography, land and marine archaeology, maritime commerce, numismatics, etc. In this book, chapters on marine mammals and pelargic birds brought in environmental issues as indispensable to Sri Lanka’s Indian Ocean heritage. Sudharshan Seneviratne, reviewing the book, while applauding its achievements, referred to the missing link – the absence of analysis of the maritime relationship with India. In the editorial discussions that predated the publication, this matter had infact been discussed but how does one deal with the proverbial “elephant in the room” so that the Big Neighbour does not eclipse the pearl?

There is much talk today of the “Blue Economy”. Leading Indian Ocean states like Indonesia have already defined its national policy covering areas of economy, defence, environment, diplomacy etc and begun implementing key measures. Looking at the Indonesian policy document, it is clear that differences of size and power do matter. Thus Indonesia has no compunction to exercise its lethal power within its Blue Economy policy for example by shooting trespassing boats. According to a recent analysis, in June 2017 Indonesia sank 81 captured vessels involved in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing as an effective deterrent, despite international criticism. It is hardly likely that such an option is open to Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait where hundreds of trawlers are engaged in IUU fishing. However a welcome start has been made on this matter by the legislation going through our Parliament to ban trawler fishing, together with the existing declaration of a marine sanctuary on our side of the Palk Strait.

How can Sri Lanka’s small navy which also runs the coast guard operations, effectively police this zone? Technology offers methods available to small states like GPS, satellite tracking and monitoring of these alleged fishing vessels which are often also engaged in smuggling and other organised crime. Yet every day newspapers report of detections of Kerala ganja smuggled into Sri Lanka. Even hapless animals are not immune – recently the Sri Lanka navy seized some 2,000 star tortoises being smuggled from India to Sri Lanka destined for transshipment to western markets.

Sri Lankan leaders have been referring to the “Blue Economy” for some time but the comprehensive policy document is awaited. It seems the preferred option is a limited diplomatic role to develop an international legal regime or “the rules of the road” in the Indian Ocean. The experience of the IOPZ is useful in this regard which was criticised as aimed against certain Western powers. It is thus a road to be traversed carefully, to avoid the impression that this new Sri Lankan initiative is designed to block any key player but rather to ensure that no one is left behind. It is also ironic that, with the turns of history, the US once the target of IOPZ, is now firmly behind the new Sri Lankan initiative as is also India which once was a prime mover in IOPZ!

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