By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, February 28: Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that Sri Lanka does not want to get involved in great power rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region. He was giving the keynote speech at the Pathfinder Indian Ocean Security Conference – Phase III, here on Wednesday.

Wickremesinghe traced the growth of the Indian Ocean’s importance since the days of decolonization, explained how the countries of the region fashioned plans to meet the emerging issues and challenges and what new challenges they face in the fast changing geopolitical scenario of today.

He noted that events around Sri Lanka had made it an important geopolitical entity. But such importance has created the possibility of its becoming a theatre of conflicts between big powers. He made it clear that Sri Lanka would not want to become a theatre of great power competition or rivalry in the region.

Wickremesinghe said that India’s independence in 1947 was brought about by the difficulties that Britain was facing in holding on to the Indian Empire.  A few months before the British left India, India’s  leader Nehru organized an Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi to discuss issues arising from decolonization.

According to information available on the New Delhi conference, the topics discussed at the ARC were: National movements for freedom; Racial Problems; Inter-Asian Migration; Transition from Colonial to National Economy; Agricultural Reconstruction and Industrial Development; Labour Problems and Social Services; Cultural Problems; Status of Women and Women’s Movement.

Significantly, “Defence and Security questions” were not discussed.

The next step in collective deliberations was the Colombo Conference in 1954, Wickremesinghe said. This was between Ceylon, India, Pakistan, Burma and Indonesia.

Reports of the time said that the Indo-China question, colonialism and Communism were discussed. But there were clashes between Ceylon’s pro-West stand and India’s tolerance of the Communist bloc. A compromise was effected and number of “expressions of hope” about Asian unity were made.

At the insistence of Indonesia, the Bandung conference took place in 1955. This was the next landmark, Wickremesinghe said.

The issues at the Bandung conference were broader such as Human Rights, the UN charter, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations; recognition of the equality of all nations large and small; abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country were discussed.   

In order to address the anxieties of the West and the Soviet Bloc, Nehru affirmed that the Bandung conference was not “opposed in any way to America or the Soviet Union or any other power or group of powers.”

The Non Aligned Movement came as the next logical step. The canvas was expanded to cover the entire Afro-Asian region.

However, in the last five years, various other developments had taken place, complicating the geopolitical situation in Asia. The inexorable rise of China, the resurrection of the China-Taiwan conflict, China’s expansion as a global economic power through its Belt and Road Initiative, the debt crisis, were new factors shaping the region, Wickremesinghe pointed out.  

West Asia emerged as a factor with the rise of Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Iran as independent players. New alliances are being struck with Iran and Saudi Arabia burying the hatchet thanks to China’s mediation, he noted.

Even as China became a factor in West Asia, India entered the fray in that region with connectivity schemes involving Iran.

New groupings like BRICS have come up breaking old barriers. But at the same time new problems are coming up in the region, such as a resurgent Somalian piracy and Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, Wickremesinghe said.

The Bay of Bengal is also set to be an area of contention with China seeking a route to reach it from its mainland through Myanmar.

The former National Security Advisor of India, Shivshankar Menon, said that relations between States in the Indian Ocean region are victims of geopolitical rivalry, made worse by the rise of authoritarian leaders who make compromises harder to arrive at.

Menon also noted that the world does not have a settled order. What we have is an uncertain space between orders, he said. This has given scope of countries to balance opportunities. A notable feature of the situation is that the UN has become ineffective. Global powers will have to work with other powers and take their interests into account.

The US Ambassador Julie Chung said that Sri Lanka occupies a critical place in the Indo-Pacific and can play a key role in ensuring that global supply chains are not disrupted. That is why the US has given  US$ 533 million dollars to support the development of a deep-water container terminal in the Port of Colombo, that will provide critical infrastructure for the South Asian region.

To see that Sri Lanka maintains its sovereignty, the US has donated  three Coast Guard Cutters and a fourth is on the way, Chung said. She suggested that Sri Lanka realise its centrality in the Indo-Pacific region and take a leadership role in it. However, she spoke approvingly of Sri Lanka’s wish to join the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Dr.Liu Zongyi, Senior Fellow and Director, Centre for South Asia Studies, China, denounced the concept of the Indo-Pacific as a “destructive” concept which is mainly aimed at stemming China’s growth and spoiling its relations with other countries.

He faulted India for joining QUAD, an association with the goal of opposing China in the Indo-Pacific region. But advised countries in India’s neighbourhood to have good relations with India while cultivating good relations with China. He cited the case of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh who has been maintaining good relations with both India and China.

Hayashi Makoto, Deputy Director General/Deputy Assistant Minister Southeast and Southwest Asian Affairs Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan, explained Japan’s contribution to the origin and growth of the concept of the Indo-Pacific.

Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, Chairman of the Pathfinder Foundation, Si Lanka, in his introductory remarks, talked on Maritime Domain Awareness, the need to develop capabilities to safeguard the Exclusive Economic Zones and the importance of finding out what lies in the seabed as these have security implications.