Sri Lanka: The centre - stage of the 21st century ?

Friday, 1 September 2017 09:59 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • The second Indian Ocean Conference taking place in Colombo from 31 August to 1 September is an opportune time to re-examine the geo-strategic significance of Sri Lanka and its immense potential


The 21st century is regarded as the Asian Century. With China and India, the rising Asian giants rapidly expanding their economies and becoming increasingly dependent on the Indian Ocean for trade, the third largest ocean in the world has never been more important than today. 

Spanning 20% of the water surface of the planet, the Indian Ocean extends to an area of more than 73,556,000 square kilometres. On the North, it is bordered by the Indian sub-continent, and extends all the way to the Antarctic in the South. On the West, it is bordered by East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula while to the East, a number of countries including Thailand, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and Australia demarcate the boundaries of this vast expanse of water. 

Approximately 35.39% of the world population, amounting to more than one-third of the world’s population, live in the 36 countries that encompass the Indian Ocean region. All these figures underline the significance of the Indian Ocean to the world. 

The Indian Ocean is also one of the most strategically important seas in the world. It is the sea, which connects the Pacific Ocean to Asia. 80% of the sea borne trade in oil and as much as 90% of goods manufactured in the world still ply though this massive water body that amounts to the world’s third largest sea. 

More than 60,000 ships and half the world’s containerised cargo cross these waters. In the years to come these figures are only going to increase further with the growth of booming Asian economies such as China, India and even Japan and South Korea. 

Among other things, the rise of China and India, their massive investments in Africa, the discovery of oil, natural gas and minerals in the seabed of the Indian Ocean have put Asia in news headlines. Constant natural disasters, threat of terrorism, drug trafficking and human smuggling have attracted the attention of the world to this region. 

Opportunities and challenges in the Indian Ocean region

Trade facilitation is one of the key opportunities available for many of the littoral states in the region, especially Sri Lanka with its strategically important location. Maritime resources, energy security and ocean science are also some of the key areas of interest in the region as there are vast resources which are being discovered in the Indian Ocean such as natural gas, minerals and oil. Further, the region is also home to considerable marine life. The substantial fishery resources available in the region can be used to make significant contributions towards world food security. 

In addition to the opportunities, there are a number of challenges faced by the region. Both India and Pakistan possess nuclear technology. There is the threat of a potential nuclear confrontation between these two nations and it keeps the world alert for nuclear disasters in Asia. 

There is also Iran, which now boasts of nuclear technology. With its missile testing and naval exercises, Iran constantly threatens of blocking the Strait of Hormuz. It can have a considerable impact on world oil prices and economic stability. The US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan attracted the attention of the world to Asia. Even though the US troops are withdrawing from these countries, the future of these nations are of great importance to the whole world. For example, if Afghanistan is stabilised, China can reap a direct benefit from it by establishing a pipeline that carries natural gas from the Indian Ocean through Afghanistan to China. This will make it less dependent on the Strait of Malacca. Thus, there are many competing interests, which impact the events that take place in the region.

The Indian Ocean has also been prone to a number of ocean-related natural disasters such as the 2004 Tsunami. As a region, it has a major bearing on climate change, ocean science and nature. However, establishment of monitoring centres in the region can turn this very vulnerability into an opportunity. 

The fisheries resources in the region can also be a potential threat to security in the region. For example, Indian fishermen poaching in the Sri Lankan territorial waters have over the years led to a continuing diplomatic row between the two governments. The many energy resources available in the region have also attracted the attention of not just the countries in the region but also outside powers.

With considerable mechanisation, urbanisation and developments taking place in the region, there will be more and more natural disasters. This makes it imperative to have a strong disaster management set up in place. Strong scientific co-operation will be required to address these issues as climate change in the region affects the whole world. With more than one-third of the world’s population concentrated in this region, the human casualties caused by natural disasters will inevitably be higher. It will be yet another factor that draws the attention of the world to this region in the future.

Terrorism, piracy, human smuggling and drug trafficking are all threats faced by all nations irrespective of their size and power in the region. Countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and India are threatened by terrorism and it is a hub for some of the most dangerous terrorist organisations in the world. The area is rampant with human trafficking, particularly massive scale trafficking of women and children across the many porous borders across the countries in the region. Drug trafficking is a major threat to countries such as Sri Lanka. 

Piracy is also becoming a common menace faced by many areas across the Indian Ocean. Due to increased patrolling in the Gulf of Aden and East Africa, the Somali pirates have moved further into the Indian Ocean and they were back in action March 2017 renewing fears for safety in the Indian Ocean. The Malacca Strait and the Bay of Bengal also face the risk of piracy and sea guerrillas. Until very recently, there were LTTE Sea Tigers posing a threat to vessels that traversed the seas close to Sri Lanka.

Ensuring maritime security in this setting will be a challenge not only for the countries in the region, but also for the rest of the world. The blockade of a single choke point in the Indian Ocean could put the world economy at risk. Thus, ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean is of utmost importance to the whole world as the world today is inextricably linked to Asia in every possible way. It is not just the vast opportunities, but also these diverse challenges, which will make the Indian Ocean region the epicentre of the world in the 21st century.

China and India in the Indian Ocean 

The rise of China and India as the world’s leading manufacturing hubs has increased their demand for energy, resulting in a large number of ships traversing the busy sea-lanes of the region. In order to reduce its dependence on the Malacca Strait, China is constructing deep-water ports in a number of locations in the Indian Ocean including Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. 

China is building these ports in the hope that it will be able to use these facilities for bunkering and have warehousing and other port facilities for their commercial goods. Chinese-manufactured goods are shipped to the West, the Middle East and Africa across the Indian Ocean. In addition to these projects, China is also providing considerable military and economic support to all these nations, where it is improving ports and other infrastructure. 

Threatened by China’s One Belt One Road initiative, India is also making considerable investments in strengthening its naval and maritime power with the support of the USA. All these factors demonstrate the value placed on the Indian Ocean by the two greatest economic giants of the 21st century. Both these countries are heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean and are keen on making their presence felt in the region. 

Other Indian Ocean littoral states are also heavily reliant on the Indian Ocean. Several major sea routes of communication fall across the Indian Ocean. They are of vital significance for importing energy from Africa and the Middle East to Asia, and for exporting manufactured goods from Asia.

The Indian Ocean is crucial to both China and India in light of Asia’s economic expansion. Both these countries have taken active measures to establish control over the Indian Ocean. What is more, the world order is changing and there is a shift of focus from the United States and the West to the East and its rising giants. These shifting sands of power have put Asia, the former third world in the limelight.

The US has shifted its focus from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Asia Pacific region, and Asia is slowly dividing into two blocks. On one side, the pro-US countries and on the other, pro-Chinese countries. Countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Mauritius are reaping benefits of their geographical location in the Indian Ocean and Sino-Indian rivalry.

With the rise of China and India there has also been massive trade and investments made in resource rich Africa by these Asian giants. From 2000-2010, Africa’s merchandise trade with China grew at an annual rate of 29% (from $9 billion to $119 billion) and with India at an annual rate of 18% (from $7 billion to $35 billion). Consequently, there has been large-scale development in Africa supported by what was the former third world and increasing trade between Asia and Africa. All these rely on the Indian Ocean too. 

Prospects for Sri Lanka 

According to Robert Kaplan, the author of Monsoon- the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (2010), “if we are entering a phase of history in which several nations will share dominance of the high seas, rather than one as in the recent past, then the Indian Ocean will play centre stage to this more dynamic and unstable configuration.” 

In his article titled ‘Centre-stage for the 21st century: Power plays in the Indian Ocean,’ Kaplan states that “already the world’s preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway, the Indian Ocean will matter even more in the future” and that “a map of the Indian Ocean exposes the contours of power politics in the twenty-first century.” 

A map of the Indian Ocean also reveals that Sri Lanka lies at the centre of the Indian Ocean. It is located on what Kaplan refers to as the “preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway,” the shipping lane that connects the East to the West. Thus, if the Indian Ocean is the centre-stage for the 21st century, Sri Lanka located at the heart of this ocean can be the centre-stage of the 21st century. Sri Lanka has the potential to be the epicentre of trade and geopolitics that will take place in the Indian Ocean in this century. 

For Sri Lanka, located right at the centre of the Indian Ocean just 10 nautical miles away from these major sea-lanes, it is a tremendous opportunity. Its location is important both in terms of military strategy and economic terms, as it can serve as a gateway to Far East Asia and by being the entry point to rapidly developing South Asia. It has the potential to become a major transhipment hub, a naval hub and a commercial hub in the region by exploiting the massive import and export trade that takes place across the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka’s trade and economic development is inseparably linked to the Indian Ocean. Thirty years after gaining independence from British colonialism Sri Lanka had to fight the LTTE, one of “the most dangerous and deadly extremist” organisations in the world. The country is just emerging after 30 years of war. The Government has made it a priority to catch up on three decades of lost opportunities. In post war Sri Lanka, the economy is rapidly expanding, with massive infrastructure projects undertaken with the assistance of China, India and a number of other states such as Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Sri Lanka is of great importance to both China and India. For them, Sri Lanka is the closest entry point to the many sea routes in the region. Sri Lanka is also significant to countries such as the United States and Japan and the UAE. All these states are also interested in Sri Lanka due to the resources that have been found in the seas around the island. For Sri Lanka, it is important to maintain good relations with not just China but also India. Both these countries have made many investments in Sri Lanka. 

Post-war development projects in Sri Lanka indicate a considerable reliance on the Indian Ocean and massive projects such as the Hambantota port project have an intrinsic link with the Indian Ocean and maritime activities. Sri Lanka has a strong, experienced navy for naval diplomacy. Sri Lanka is strategically located right at the centre of the Indian Ocean. It lies at the heart of a region of massive economic growth fuelled by the rise of China and India. All these present an unrivalled window of opportunity. If the Government is able to take advantage of this, Sri Lanka has the potential to become the “centre stage of the 21st century”.

[Thilini Kahandawaarachchi, BA, LLB(Hons), MA, is an experienced research and communications professional and has served several diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka and the private sector. She is also an Attorney-at-Law. This article is based on her postgraduate thesis titled ‘Sri Lanka: Centre-stage of the 21st century’ at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies. The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity. She can be reached via email [email protected].]


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