26 September, 2023


Can Sri Lanka Be A Hub And Haven In The Indian Ocean?

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya –

Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

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.

Courtesy Sunday Times

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Latest comments

  • 0

    The suggestion is that SL market itself as a HUB. Good idea!
    1. Well, Sri lanka is indeed a HUB – HUB OF IGNORANCE. Educational institutions, as with all other democratic and economic/ financial institutions have been HOLLOWED OUT by the Rajapakse regime through politicization and under-funding. The regime is cultivating a HUB OF IGNORANCE through destruction of institutions and critical voices and media and the denial of the RIGHT TO INFORMATION.
    2. There are many other countries strategically located between China and India – Singapore with an ethnic majority Chinese, Nepal literally sandwiched, Malasia, Indonesia all the ASEAN countries, Burma, Bangladesh, so Lanka need not feel too HUBBISH!
    BCIS full of Rajapakse stooges can prat on about Lanka as a HUB! But all this talking about the region and marketing Lanka distracts from the CORE ISSUE that Lanka today is a HUB OF IGNORANCE and a laughing stock in the region and rest of the world with one RAJAPAKSE FAMILY 4 brothers and more sons who have 1 questionable degree between them controlling the country. Thus goons like the so-called Minister of Higher Education and fools like Bandula Gunawardena neither of whom can speak 2 sentences in English which is the language of research and teaching in the world are appointed to key posts. The University Grants Commission is full of political stooges. The latest VC appointed to the Open University is last month a ran for the UPFA two years ago and has no other achievement nor record of publication to his name.
    The rot starts at the top. Nivard Cabraal a mere accountant heads the central banks which needs an economist with integrity. Lanka’s economic and financial institutions have been HOLLOWED OUT – gold reserves and land sold and mortgaged to sustain an unsustainable carbon heavy development program posited on the growth of inequality and hollowing out and destruction of key institutions.

  • 0

    This author should measure the rhetoric @ BCIS against reality and give us a slightly more rounded analysis — if she wants to be taken seriously!
    Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace? Very good Idea except that it is being militarized to the hilt at this time to keep the global arms industry in business.
    More importantly, charity begins @ home! Sri Lanka needs to find peace with justice for its minorities before talking about the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace. Peace zone means de-militarization. Currently, there is a repressive or negative highly militarized peace in Lanka which is one of the most if not the most militarized country per capita in the region. The folks at BCIS need to get real – again – Charity begins @ home!!

  • 0

    “We should promote (the idea of) a hub as a haven;” “a Peace Zone;” ….

    First of all, Lanka must avoid “unwanted” interference of all the powerful countries.Thus, unless it finds a durable political solution to the ethnic and other conflicts and re-establish human rights and democracy,talking about promoting the idea of a hub as a heaven or a peace zone etc. would be time killing and pure imagination!

    Foreign policy studies should be integrated with military science and technology. Without adequate knowledge on military science and technology, the study on international politics and foreign policy formulation would not lead to correct conclusion.

  • 0

    As long as the Rajapaksa’s run this country as a dictatorship, with thugs running amok, journalists and activists unable to speak out against crimes, stalling international bodies with investigations being denied,
    citizens murdered, kidnapped, and missing, with no one held responsible, or punished, and corruption at the highest levels, this banana republic will never be considered as hub or haven in the Indian Ocean. In fact it will be considered some type of rogue nation. If the Rajapaksa’s think for one minute they can fool the entire world, like they have fooled some of their supporters, then they are living in a dream world.

  • 0

    @Panda. You and others of your views are very correct.
    The problem is the type of Government and ministers, including the 5 Rajapakses including Chamal the speaker and Namal the young -Richard…D..- And Nirupama Rajapakse and her Commission Kakka husband.

    Sri Lanka is better known as the crime capital, War Crimes and other crimes including attacking foreign and local journalist, tourist (raped and killed), and media. It is also the Gay capital of the world where pedophiles are rushing as tourist with gay abandon. No country comes a close second.

    Underage Sex also are big attraction to the tourist, like in Thailand.
    That is known as child sex, child prostitution, and child trafficking and authorities are turning a blind eye and even cooperating to keep the numbers low.

    Talking about real hub activity, GOSL has already spent 2 Billion dollars in the port of Hambantota, and not even a single crane installed, leave alone a container crane. In 2012 most of the container ships are gearless, which means they need shore based container cranes.
    Another billion dollars will be spent in the next 12 months and all are Chinese loans and not aid or grant. That is at 7 or 8 % interest, with inflated contracts and commissions, since no tenders were called.

    I know a little bit of container cranes, because it was my brother and I who installed the first container crane in South Asia. That too, in the port of Colombo, despite Lalith Athulathmudali being the Minister of Shipping, in 1982. That finally began the transhipment trade of containers.

    The 1983 riots ruined all that prospect and to speed ahead of India and the region, including Dubai. Being a retired DC 8 pilot, and involved in shipping and aviation for 40 odd years, I know a thing or two in the hub trade. Both the UNP and SLFP are totally against developing Trincomalee port and a new airport North of it for 35 years. And after the Rajapakses were installed in power in 2005, 3 billion dollars are wasted in airport, port and other infrastructure with nothing to show, except a few ships being forced to discharge cars/vehicles there.

    Political appointments and cronyism, nepotism, bandyism, in addition to bribery and corruption is also the biggest problem. President Rajapakse’s brother in law a retired planter living in London has been appointed the Chairman of Sri Lankan Airlines. Fight with Emirates also caused further disaster 5 years ago. SLPA chairman P B Wickrema is a LIAR and a henchmen even fooling the Parliament telling one lie after the other. Profitable SLPA is operating at huge losses now and will continue to do so, unable to pay their loans.

    They delayed the South Port project by 8 years now, and expansion has hardly commenced. They have missed the bus. Indian ports are developing fast because of trade expansion, and Singapore, Dubai, and Salalah (Oman) are capitalizing on Sri Lanka’s failure of 30 years, of War Crimes and Civil War, where ports and airports was attacked by the LTTE as genuine economic targets. (Colombo, Galle and Katunayake).

    3 years after the war nobody is rushing to Sri Lanka, to add to the hub or transshipment trade, both in air and sea cargo. Two reasons.

    1. Lack of Good will with the potential trading countries, shipping and airlines. Others lobbying against trade with Sri Lanka. Period.

    2. Sri Lanka is not ready with the port, airport, and FTZ in Trincomalee. There is no manufacturing base there, where there would be imports and exports like in Colombo, which will have shipping lines and airlines calling in regularly. The diaspora and Indian visitors want a cheaper flight and land transport closer to their final destination in the North and East, and surrounding Sinhala provinces. The operational costs saved by both sea and air would be 30% to South India, like Chennai, Trichy, Bangalore, and Vizag.

    No hotels are being built, and Palaly airport (In absolute disrepair) is hardly operating where flights to Trichy and Chennai were flown 50 years ago is not operating in 2012. When traffic increase, there will be increase in hub activity, where Sri Lanka does not have a shipping line and a broken down airline. Further more just one port and airport, which cannot handle increased traffic, as confessed by the SLPA, that there are 10 days waiting time for Ro-Ro Vessels in Colombo.

    Sri Lankan airlines will make a profit, when the Rajapakses make peace with the diaspora Tamils and Tamil Nadu Tamils, and Colombo port could be used as a major hub for increased and profitable flights. How does an airline increase it’s profit? Only by increasing it’s pay load of passengers and cargo, and having the ability to increase revenues by increasing the price of tickets to Singapore airline levels. (20% higher). Now Sri Lankan are routing some flights via Maldives, as well as selling their space at Heathrow because they are not using their given slots. What a shame and disgrace? So Lasanda how can Colombo (only port and airport) become a hub?

    Sri Lanka needs to clean house!!!!

    With the new highway connecting to the South with Katunayake airport, the tourist to the South and housemaids to and from the middle east can be home in 2 hours. The 3 billion dollars are wasted white elephant projects to boost the ego of the Rajapakses and will not help the hub activity and transshipment trade. How many ships have called in Hambantota for bunkers as they boasted the last 3 years. Answer -None.

    BTW, the 3 most profitable companies in Sri Lanka operate out of the Port of Trincomalee. -Prima Ceylon, Tokyo Cement owned by Gnanams, and LIOC -(Partial operations).SL can do 1,000 times more if they have a non racist-chauvinist mindset, even after LTTE is non existent for the past 3 years. GOSL promoting garment factories in far away villages including the North and East, without the original FTZ capital, Trincolmallee Port. What is the correct word to use? Idiocracy? Or Stupidity! All these 3 projects in 33 years was during the UNP regime.

    GOSL need to come to the realization that Trinco also belongs to Sri Lanka and is a part of Sri Lanka and is much closer to India both by air and sea. UNP also should change, if they come into power.

    Efficiency and competency is a problem, with no proper administration in the NE other than military rule by the governors, GA, and the military itself. Nobody, makes any investment when there is possible turmoil and NE beaches still remain “virgin beaches” while Kalpitiya will eventually sink or get polluted with possible nuclear waste from Koodankulam nuclear plant. That will affect the gulf of Mannar too.

    In conclusion, Sri Lanka is still viewed as an unstable and unreliable country, run by one family like the Duvaliers of Haiti, Mugabes of Zimbabwe, Marcos of Philippines, Sudan, Lebanon, Idi Amin’s Uganda and so on. Bribery and corruption is a huge disincentive as well.

    That is why Sri Lanka, is struggling to become a hub and reach it’s full potential, (or even half) despite the 3 billion dollars of investment in Hambantota, and whatever is being invested in the port of Colombo and airport in Katunayake which has little room for expansion. (only one runway and no alternate airport except Chennai).

    GOSL also need the goodwill of all the Sri Lankan diaspora, who have the connections, for trade and investment as well as promotion. Instead, the opposite is going on especially with India, and the West. (EU, UK, US and Canada. Australia, NZ, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan). FYI, the 2 biggest investors from Malaysia are Tamils investing over half a billion dollars directly and indirectly. JVP trying to boycott American goods is nothing but stupid and idiotic. lol.

    These are the idiots who are Ministers of the Rajapakses. Mervyn Silva, Kudu Silva, Ranawaka, Monitor Vaas Gunawardene and the Rajapakses. Check their track record and background and see what they have done in their lives and the wealth they have amassed and hidden? Whose money are those?

    All governments for 30 years are to be blamed. But a golden opportunity from 2002 peace agreement, (CFA) 2009 end of war, but not accounting and accepting blame/responsibility of killing 40 or 100,000 Tamil civilians is a serious impediment to expand the embryonic hub trade, investments (FDI), BPO’s, etc. That will remain so, until international issues including UNHRC resolution, Tamil Nadu hostility, problems with India are resolved. Hub activity cannot be productive with hostility with India, US, and Europe/UK. Period.

    • 0

      Nice analysis – the story of missed opportunities, white elephant infrastructure all configured in MASSIVE RAJAPAKSE FAMILY CORRUPTION. Question is why have the great international donors and development Czars like the World Bank (which called itself the Knowledge Bank remained silent) on the disaster that post-war development under the Rajapakse regime has caused? What happened to all that hype about “good governance” spun by donors? Also, what is the sleezy and cowardly business sector doing or saying about this – they seem to be looting Lanka while aiding Rajapakse to loot?
      The accountants organization CIMA is a disgrace – has been merely fawning over that uneducated accountant Cabraal at the Cenral Bank and wining and dining at 5 star hotels, rather than challenging the spin.
      For the so-called business community its ‘bread and circuses’ as usual!

  • 0

    Another aspect of the Hub City of Asia!
    Pedophiles, and I wrote about it earlier.

    This is the editorial from the Island!
    There own words and it is an understatement to the problem.


    Tourism #s are increasing and Sri Lanka are very Happy.

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