The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and its geopolitical significance has been the subject of many discussions over the past several decades. It is no secret that emerging world powers such as India and China, as well as the United States, which is vying to gain a foothold in the region, are making overt attempts at wresting control in the IOR for both commercial and military purposes.
Smacked right in the middle of all this geopolitical wrangling is our small island nation.
One of the biggest challenges faced by Sri Lanka at the moment is staying true to our non-aligned policy, while not giving into the immense pressure exerted on us by our neighbours and allies.
This was the essence of the speech delivered by President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Thursday, 15 September, at the first graduation ceremony of the National Defence College in Colombo.
In his speech, President Wickremesinghe asserted that the IOR should be opened to all to ensure freedom of navigation for commercial viability, and that Sri Lanka will not participate in military alliances and does not want the problems of the Pacific coming into the Indian Ocean. He also urged the countries in the IOR to come together to look at how best to maintain stability of the region.
The Pacific region was on high alert recently, when tension between China and the US reached fever pitch, as US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, made a sudden visit to Taiwan last month, which gave rise to speculation by analysts whether a situation similar to Ukraine would emerge in the Pacific. Fortunately, it did not.
Nevertheless, a military conflict in the IOR between world superpowers would be utterly devastating for the region in general and for Sri Lanka in particular. In the words of President Wickremesinghe, “We have to remember that bulk of the petroleum supply and energy supply to the world goes through the Indian Ocean. A large amount of shipping goes through the Indian Ocean. We don’t want this to be an area of conflict and an area of war.”
He emphasised that Sri Lanka does not want to see big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean, as such rivalry could get reflected everywhere, and added that Sri Lanka is open to the navies of all countries and there is no discrimination.
“If the navies want to come, we have no problem. They helped in the anti-piracy operations. But, we don’t want a level of rivalry which will affect the security and the peace of our area. Whatever it be that we will not join any big power or take sides, we will stay out of it. And that’s why we want to ensure that the big powers and the rivalry don’t need to certainly lead to conflict in the Indian Ocean. That’s one thing we can’t afford.”
Importantly, the President’s words hark back to the times when Sri Lanka was a proud and exemplary member of the Non-Aligned Movement, which helped us successfully navigate the turbulent Cold War era.
However, over time, Sri Lanka gradually veered away from
non-aligned policies and the foreign relations over the last couple of decades had been, at best, messy.
Nonetheless, in his speech, President Wickremesinghe made another important assertion, that is, Sri Lanka’s role in safeguarding the security of India and other neighbouring countries. “When it comes to the security of Sri Lanka, we are of the view that in looking after the security of Sri Lanka, we must also ensure that nothing adverse happens to the security of India. That we have been committed to, and we will go ahead with it. There will be no movement out of it. That’s why we work with India on the Colombo conclave, on the trilateral security arrangements and many other fields, especially outside the military field of piracy, of human trafficking, of drugs.”
He also stressed that Sri Lanka should not allow any other country to use it to attack third parties.
One of the ways in which Sri Lanka can come out of the present economic crisis and the crippling foreign exchange shortage is through the increased traffic in the IOR, and by attracting such traffic towards Sri Lanka by turning ourselves into a transshipment hub. And, to do that, we must ensure domestic political stability and establish security in the IOR.