Realising the potential of the Indian Ocean | Sunday Observer

Realising the potential of the Indian Ocean

7 October, 2018

This week, Sri Lanka will host an international conference on the future of the Indian Ocean. On October 11 and 12, 2018, we will bring together countries that surround and use this great body of water, in the centre of which Sri Lanka holds a pivotal location. Why are we taking the initiative to host an international conference on the Indian Ocean, and what might this forum achieve? The answer to these questions is threefold.

First, the Indian Ocean region is set to define the destiny of the planet in the 21st century. At the centre of this geopolitical turn of events, is the Indian Ocean- an ocean which is increasingly being defined as the ‘Ocean of the Future’. The Indian Ocean region is one of the fastest growing regions in the world and is expected to reach middle-income status by 2025. This offers significant economic opportunities for the ocean’s surrounding states and maritime users—including Sri Lanka—yet, also carries risks from rising competition in the region among big powers. For Sri Lanka to attain its long-held ambition to become a hub of the Indian Ocean, these economic opportunities must be maximised, while minimising the risks of great power competition in the Indian Ocean.

Second, for smaller states such as Sri Lanka,which lack vast military power, an essential element to maximising opportunities and minimising risks is to actively support the international rules-based order. Lee Kuan Yew took this approach to ensure Singapore’s growth into a stable and prosperous hub in the ASEAN region. Many other successful smaller states have adopted the same approach, from New Zealand in the South Pacific to the Netherlands in the North Atlantic.

Third, the international rules-based order is not an abstract idea; there are established rules and principles (like freedom of navigation) which operate on a common understanding of challenges and solutions in the region and around the world. In hosting the forthcoming Conference on the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka will play its part in maintaining that common understanding, and thereby ensure a stable rules-based order in the Indian Ocean in which we can thrive as a hub.


The opportunities result from the Indian Ocean sea-lanes being some of the world’s major trade and energy arteries, connecting the rapidly growing economies of East and Southeast Asia with the resource-rich nations of the Middle East and East Africa. They carry around one-third of the world’s bulk cargo and around two-thirds of its oil shipments.

The Indian Ocean economies also have an extremely rich resource base, accounting for nearly 17% of global oil reserves, 28% of proven natural gas reserves, 35.5% of global iron production[1] and 28% of global fish capture[2]. Its rapidly growing population currently makes up 35% of the world’s total.

The combined effects of this maritime traffic and rich resource base have made the Indian Ocean one of the fastest growing regions in the world - 5.1% from 2011-2017 - with a projected per capita income of USD 6,150 by 2025.[3]

In addition, the linkages between the Indian and Pacific Oceans are envisaged to create a maritime super highway that can bring prosperity to all.


This economic potential has also generated strategic risks. Both, regional and extra-regional powers are competing to secure access to the region’s resources and its sea-lanes. This has resulted in a multi-layered regionalism with initiatives such as, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Free Trade Area of the Asia and the Pacific (FTAAP), and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[4]

This has also resulted in more ominous naval competition.

There is also an upsurge of maritime crime and terrorism in the region. For example, 46.6% of total piracy incidents in 2017 took place in the Indian Ocean region, and from May 2015 to May 2016, nearly 4,500 kg of heroin were seized in the region.

Sri Lanka, centrally located astride the Indian Ocean sea-lanes, is a small trading nation that has long aspired to develop as a trade and maritime hub of the region. These aspirations are reflected in the various development projects currently underway in Sri Lanka, such as, the Colombo International Financial City, the Hambantota Industrial Zone, and the expressways connecting Sri Lanka’s hinterland to its ports. If such aspirations are to be fully realised, Sri Lanka must look to maximise the economic opportunities of the Indian Ocean while minimising its challenges.

The Importance of a Rules-based Order

Sri Lanka has a long-standing record of advocating for an international rules-based order. For example, in 1954, Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala convened a meeting with the leaders of Pakistan, Myanmar, India and Indonesia, which was the forerunner to the Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian Nations.[5] Later, under Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka played a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).[6] Sri Lanka has also been deeply involved in developing the ocean governance processes since the time of negotiation of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Thus, Sri Lanka has significant interest in actively contributing to events that are currently unfolding in the region.

With strategic competition heightening in this part of the world once again, it is imperative that smaller littoral states of the Indian Ocean such as Sri Lanka not remain spectators, but proactively assert their interests by advocating for international rules-based order. There are clearly established rules and principles, such as, freedom of navigation and freedom of trade, that form the bedrock of this order. In the maritime domain, these rules and principles are articulated in UNCLOS.

What underpins the effectiveness of frameworks such as UNCLOS is the shared understanding of its principles by all actors party to it. Such understanding needs to be renewed from time to time, especially, on crucial issues such as, freedom of navigation.

Recent political developments have shown that differences can arise over the interpretation of such principles, which makes it necessary to clarify such misunderstandings. On other issue areas, such as, human smuggling, terrorism and piracy, there might also be a need to build consensus, as these areas were not fully covered under UNCLOS at the time of its formulation.[7]

In short, what is needed is a dialogue between Indian Ocean littoral states and major maritime users of the Indian Ocean on various maritime issues, to develop a common understanding based on UNCLOS. Through diplomatic efforts to develop such a common understanding, Sri Lanka hopes to ensure the stability of the rules-based order and build the foundation for a prosperous regional economy.This, in brief, is the rationale for hosting this Track 1.5 Conference in Colombo in October.[8]

An Indian Ocean governed by rules

This is a critical juncture in global history. International relations of the future will be determined in a more maritime and Asia-centric world. The rise of the East also foretells a unique opportunity for Asia to introduce its own model of international relations, underpinned by the maritime salience of the Indian Ocean Region, its civilisational traditions and historical circumstances. Indian Ocean trade networks date back at least 4,000 years and the people of Asia were connected by seagoing commerce centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. These robust maritime trade routes were unique, in that neither nationality, race, religion nor culture were an issue when it came to trade. Voyagers across the Indian Ocean went to Southeast Asia and the Far East and westwards to Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean. There were no obstacles to travel or trade. These ancient trade routes clearly epitomised the idea of freedom of navigation and rules-based order.

The challenge before us is to recreate the open and free spirit of trade and commerce that existed in ancient times across the Indian Ocean.This would be of benefit for global trade and maritime Asia in particular. Should this not be our unique contribution to the new global order? The spirit of maritime trade and commerce should be inclusive, pluri-lateral, stabilising and rules-based. It should also empower the littorals and give them their due place as direct stakeholders.[9]

Sri Lanka’s initiative on Freedom of Navigation in the Indian Ocean should be viewed in that light. Our purpose is to create a platform for dialogue where Indian Ocean littoral states and major maritime users are able to convene and discuss issues of mutual interest. It is important to anticipate challenges and work towards practical solutions based on UNCLOS, which continues to serve as the Constitution of the Seas.

We are hopeful that the Indian Ocean Conference this October will achieve this objective, and reinforce the Indian Ocean’s enduring identity as a free and open space where goods, services and ideas travel freely, as ‘an Ocean governed by rules’.


[1] LKI calculations based on World Mining Data. Available at:

[2] LKI calculations based on data from the Food and Agricultural Organization on Global Fish Capture Production. Available at:

[3] LKI calculations based on World Bank, World Development Indicators Database, Available at:; IMF, World Economic Outlook Database, Available at:

[4] Wickremesinghe, R. 2018. Speech Delivered at the 3rd Indian Ocean Conference. Delivered in Hanoi, Vietnam on August 27, 2018.

[5] Wickremesinghe, R. 2018. Speech Delivered at the 22nd Convocation of the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute. Delivered in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 13, 2018.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Wickremesinghe, R. 2018. Speech Delivered at the 3rd Indian Ocean Conference.

[9] Ibid.