21st century MSR: Sri Lankan perspective

By Ahangama Withanage Asanga Abeyagoonasekara
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, February 9, 2015
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The Indian Ocean region contains 40% of the world's oil and gas reserves, 1/3 of the world's population and plays host to key sea lines of communication. It also stands as the gateway to the Africa, Europe and the Pacific. It is these three key regions that the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative seeks to connect vis-a-vis greater regional economic cooperation.

The core of the MSR arm of Chinese foreign policy lies in creating and maintaining mutually beneficial cooperation and friendly trade and cultural relation with countries along the maritime route of old through its One Belt One Road policy.

Sri Lanka can not only contribute to the development of the MSR but also be a vital cog in the efficient functioning of this historic venture in three key areas:

Sri Lanka boasts of an unrivalled geo strategic position currently holding 20% of the world's ten deepest ports. It lies on strategic Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC's) which makes the island maritime hub. Today, this vision of a Maritime Hub is once again being realized with the development of key ports such as the Hambantota and Colombo by building and upgrading infrastructure to enable it to become the logistics hub of South Asia.

The Hambantota port built with Chinese assistance features transhipment, bunkering and ship building facilities which provide vital value additions to the national and regional economy by providing direct employment opportunities for an estimated 50,000 people. China has also been at the forefront in the provision of assistance to build the Mattala International airport, the lotus tower and the Colombo port city.

Together, these projects will constitute a vital part of the MSR initiative while complimenting the island's vision of becoming an Maritime and Commercial Hub. Working in unison, this Hub concept will increase opportunities for commercial shipping, provide greater connectivity and prosperity to all countries in the region. Moreover, 2015 is the year in which the momentous China-Sri Lanka free trade agreement is expected to be signed, enabling both countries to consolidate on trade volumes which have seen a threefold growth to $3.6 billion.

Very few nations are immune to the threat posed by terrorism; fewer still are able to defeat it. Sri Lanka's unprecedented military victory over the LTTE separatists means that it has a unique role to play on the world stage. The strategic achievements of Sri Lanka attest to the role the country can play on the global stage in the fight against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.

The stability and security, arising from the defeat of terrorist outfits of the LTTE will no doubt be of distinct strategic advantage to present and future MSR partners. Sri Lanka can help provide a stable platform on which to deliver economic, strategic benefits both bilaterally and on a regional basis.

SLOC security is a global commons issue. A total of 40% of oil delivered to China is dependent on maritime transport and 70% of world oil flows through the Indian Ocean. Maritime piracy imposes an intolerable threat on commercial shipping and trade with costs standing at an estimated $6 billion a year. Therefore any incidents of piracy can have a disproportionately greater impact on China's maritime, economic interests and by extension global economic growth. The vastly improved maritime security environment in and around the straits of Malacca is largely attributable to the success of multilateral counter piracy initiatives, such as that of ReCAAP, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia, of which China and Sri Lanka are member states.

The People's Liberation Army and Navy's efforts in the Gulf of Aden has been worthy of its status as a responsible stakeholder. China has also pledged $480 million to fight poverty in South East Asia. This would enhance the MSR initiative efforts to bring about greater regional cooperation in anti-piracy efforts by empowering and freeing people from the shackles of the economically marginalizing forces that provide the impetus for piracy.

MSR provides the ideal backdrop in which to stage joint maritime exercises which could help to facilitate confidence and cement the trust of the countries in the region. The Cormorant strike III joint military exercise conducted in the eastern province of Sri Lanka in 2012, which featured officers from the armed forces of China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives and India, is a prime example of the type of strategic cooperation expected of the MSR.

The infrastructure projects outlined earlier are indicative of the peaceful rise of China, its intentions being purely economic and commercial in nature. It represents the economic aspirations of the world's most populous region whose prosperity is in all our interests. It is this idea that former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton articulated, “ The fact is that a thriving America is good for China and a thriving China is good for America. We both have much more to gain from cooperation than from conflict.”

The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road and One Belt One Road projects, initiated trough Chinese diplomacy, represents a golden opportunity to forge greater cooperation between nations. In doing this it could sustain economic growth through investing in infrastructure and guaranteeing energy security. It will also be a demonstration of the regions' willingness to jointly find solutions to non-traditional threats such as climate change, terrorism and piracy which are issues of global significance.

Author Asanga Abeyagoonasekera holds a BSC in Computer Science and an MBA from Western Australia, and completed Executive Education in Governance, Leadership and Public Policy and Emerging Markets from the Harvard Kennedy School, Yale University, LKY School of Public Policy (Singapore) and ISB (Hyderabad). He is presently the Advisor to Minister of External Affairs, Executive Director of the Premiere National think tank Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS), and Director General of BIDTI, a diplomatic training institute. He is the founding Curator of the Global Shapers Colombo Hub and the Country Chair of Global Dignity (globaldignity.org), Chairman and Founder of the “Diri Saviya” Foundation, a community-based non-governmental organization in Sri Lanka, and also the founder and Chairman of the Junior World Entrepreneurship Forum Sri Lanka Chapter. The World Economic Forum recognized him as a Young Global Leader in 2012.

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