Sea power of an island nation | Sunday Observer

Sea power of an island nation

2 May, 2021
A fast attack craft
A fast attack craft

The security, prosperity, and vital interests’ countries are increasingly coupled to those of other nations.

Our nation’s interests are best served by fostering a peaceful global system comprised of interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance, said former Navy Commander Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe.

He was speaking at the Annual Memorial Lecture of the late Admiral Clancy Fernando held at the Institute of National Security Studies in Colombo.

He said that that in addition, elements determining a nation’s resilience and power include geography, population, natural resources, economic capacity, military strength, political stability and information.

Realistically, military power and its projection that are a major determinant of national power allowing the other elements to play their roles in a protected and secure environment.

Traditionally, island states use maritime strategy to achieve political objectives and goals with sea power acting as the main element of national power. States that do not employ their maritime strategy or mismanage it usually face grave consequences.

The oceans connect the nations of the world, even those countries that are landlocked. Because the maritime domain, the world’s oceans, seas, bays, estuaries, islands, coastal areas, littorals, and the airspace above them support 90 percent of the world’s trade, which carries the lifeblood of a global system that links every country on earth.

Covering three-quarters of the planet, the oceans make neighbours of people around the world. They enable nations to help friends in need and to confront and defeat aggression far from their own shores.

Our challenge is to apply sea power in a manner that protects Sri Lanka’s vital interests even as it promotes greater collective security, stability, and trust. Defending our own homeland and defeating adversaries in war remain the indisputable ends of sea power. Hence, it must be applied more broadly if it is to continue to serve our national interests in the future.

Strategic and effective use of improvised sea power of Sri Lanka by the Sri Lanka Navy with air and land support in successfully countering international logistics support and supply chain of the adversary venturing bravely and courageously to the high seas of international waters in 2007 and 2008 played the pivotal and a critical role in securing our national sovereignty and national security to achieve the honourable peace that we enjoy today.

Historical perspective in sea power

The Navies are linked with constituents of sea power which are interlinked to each other. These constituents have been used in early Sri Lankan maritime domains.

Sri Lanka had a great history as a maritime nation with archaeological proof of the voyagers of King Parakramabahu I in the kingdom of Polonnaruwa. In a maritime nation, people, society and government are contributing to maritime domain development.

Sri Lanka is a small state which has greater opportunity to contribute to maritime related activities. It is the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka to admire this and strengthen civil and military maritime capabilities.

It can be established that this region’s strategic importance in terms of commerce and trade too was noted and as such, the Chinese Admiral Zheng has been reported to have visited the region and Sri Lanka in particular since 1405.

These historical examples prove the gamut of nature, of a concept called, ‘Sea Power’ and Sri Lanka being an island nation, these strategies must incorporate with national security policies of the country.

Sea power

Components of national power of any nation will be identified as Diplomacy, Military, Economy and Information. However, it is agreed that elements which determine a nation’s resilience and power include geography, population, system of education, natural resources, economic capacity, military strength, political stability and information.

In this connection military power and its projection will be the key factor of showcasing the national power whilst other elements play their respective roles to ensure a nation’s aspirations in a well secured and protected environment.

It is a common phenomenon to use military strategy to achieve a well secured nation with the aim of protecting and achieving the national objectives.

Traditionally, island nations use maritime strategy to achieve national objectives and goals with sea power as the key determinant of their national strategy. In here, it is pertinent to mention that maritime strategy is the plan by which the maritime power of a nation is developed and used for attaining the national objectives within the sphere of the national strategy.

Along with this definition sea power or maritime power is identified as the nation’s ability to use the seas to safeguard and progress its national interests.

Hence, it is a key pillar of national security policy and is a key enabler in the formulation and implementation of viable national and military strategies especially in island nations like us. In addition, maritime power, which facilitates and enables use of seas by all stake holders to meet the national objectives.

Establishing sea power in a country is directly helpful to strengthen the national policies. Sea power is a collective effect of military and civil maritime capabilities of a country. Military maritime capabilities can be achieved via naval operations and civil maritime capabilities can be achieved via commercial operations.

Military maritime capabilities are basically naval ships, craft, naval surveillance systems, intelligence and costal protection units. Under civil maritime capabilities, merchant shipping, merchant marine, fishing, marine insurance, ship building and repairs can be taken into consideration. To establish sea power the combination between these two elements are essential.

In this perspective, the Navy is the main instrument and manifestation of the maritime power of a nation state.

The reason the Navy exists is to safeguard the nation’s use of the seas for its legitimate sovereign purposes, whilst concurrently guarding against unfriendly use of the sea by others in peaceful and legitimate means.

According to the Admiral Mahan, the nation with the most powerful Navy would control the world. He highlighted six principles underpinning the development of a sea power of a nation, namely, geographical position, physical confirmation, extent of territory, population size, national character and character of governance.

Geopolitical and geostrategic perspective in the region

The Indian Ocean has been an important location in the strategic calculations of the great powers of the world, primarily due to the economic impact of the Indian Ocean in the East-West maritime trade.

Over the past decade, South Asia and its Indian Ocean Region have emerged as a focus of tremendous international concern at the turn of the new millennium.

It should be noted that “the region is historically well known for its great strategic salience and enormous market potential....” It is established that this region has always played a significant role in the economics and politics of international relations.

It can be comprehended that the South Asia region is without a doubt located in one of the important, if not the most important locations in the world. Sri Lanka, unlike the other South Asian nations, is located in the centre of the Indian Ocean at a strategic position.

As we all know Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the centre in the Indian Ocean (IO) and its position as an emerging maritime hub have had a considerable impact on regional political, economic and leadership land scape.

The country’s geographical position is of vital interest as that dominates the sea lines of communications (SLOC) and influences the world trade plying from East to West and West to East in the IO. Hence, SLOC are strategic areas critical to our nation’s lifeline.

In addition, geostrategic rivalry between the US, India and China, the increasing interest of Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and European countries in the Indian Ocean, are of much concern to Sri Lanka as she seeks to avoid disruptions in the sea lanes of communication in her maritime domains that are also used for international navigation.

Therefore, we need to enhance our sea power in all aspects, including surveillance, intelligence, deterrence, and defence capability to meet the unforeseen traditional and non-traditional maritime challenges.

Due to the strategic relevance both China and India have shown an increasing interest towards the Indian Ocean and have towards this end, engineered several key strategies and initiatives, i.e. the Maritime Silk Route initiative by the former and the Indian Ocean Strategy by the latter.

They have also identified Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean as an ideal focal point to implement its policies and objectives.

This illustrates the importance the Indian Ocean plays in terms of global politics and can be further understood by Admiral Alfred Mahan’s statement, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia.” It is for these reasons, i.e. the surge in trade routes and the centre role it plays in global politics, that the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) will be the focal point for global interactions and increasing Sino-Indian interests.

The sea lanes in the Indian Ocean are considered among the most strategically important in the world as well as in the Sri Lankan economy. According to the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, more than 80 percent of the world seaborne trade in oil transits through the Indian Ocean choke points, with 40 percent passing through the Strait of Hormuz, 35 percent through the Strait of Malacca and eight percent through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

In addition to being strategically located and being the main route for sea trade, the Indian Ocean Region is also crucial for energy security, a resource that is abundant in the region.

Therefore, all developing societies need access the new material produced around the Indian Ocean littoral. According to Kim Beazley, Australia’s ambassador to the United States, “In the long-term the Indian Ocean is going to be massively more significant in global politics than it has ever been before.”

India’s unique geographic location forms the cornerstone of India’s aspiration to dominate the Indian Ocean or even to transform the Indian Ocean into India’s Ocean. Many Indian strategists view the Indian Ocean as India’s ‘rightful domain’ and contend that ‘India will have to play a very large role in the region if the prospects for peace and cooperation are to grow’.

In addition, re-naming of Asia-Pacific plus South Asia and the IOR as the Indo-Pacific are examples that have emerged as new geopolitical and geostrategic areas where diverse and divergent interests have been set out by the different nations.

This illustrates the role the Indian Ocean currently plays and is set to play in global politics. However, the geo-strategic conditions in the IOR are still developing. The current trends being seen indicating that the three main powers involved: India, China and the US, have their own priorities, with potential for clash, may not be conducive to the establishment of regional peace and prosperity, a dream of all concerned nations.

Relationship between sea power and the Navy

Use of sea power to influence actions and activities at sea and ashore, and the expeditionary character and versatility of maritime forces provide a nation the asymmetric advantage of enlarging or contracting its military footprint in areas where access is denied or limited.

The reach that a sea power could extend effective influence in achieving national objectives was displayed by the United Kingdom in 1982 when the Naval Task Force with merchant marines ventured 8,000 Nautical miles (1,300km) away from UK to Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Air, sea, land and underwater battles were fought by the Naval task force using carrier borne aircraft, submarines, surface platforms, fleet auxiliaries and Royal Marines on land.

The speed, flexibility, agility and scalability of maritime forces provide joint or combined force commanders a range of options for responding to crises. Additionally, integrated maritime operations, either within formal alliance structures (such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or more informal arrangements (such as the Global Maritime Partnership Initiative), send powerful messages to the aggressors that the nation will act with others to ensure collective security and prosperity. Hence, Sri Lanka’s maritime responsibilities are extensive, and our security interests are diverse.

We are accountable for the management, conservation, and protection of the vast exclusive economic zone in the region; an area far greater than our land mass. In support of the Sri Lankan government, the Navy has to closely monitor the evolving maritime security situation, emerging challenges, and importantly, the tactics required to counter them in an effective way.

With the possible future expansion to the Outer Continental Margin, the task of the Sri Lanka Navy will broaden. With these responsibilities, it is suggested that the Navy has to expand in size, in resources and platforms.

The professionalism and ability of our naval forces enable us to provide safety and security against the full spectrum of maritime security activities with confidence which is ranging from combat operations, and contribution for humanitarian assistance missions.

Our maritime forces are flexible and adaptable and capable of responding quickly and decisively to a range of situations. Now the navy extend Sri Lanka’s reach and influence and have the poise and persistence to operate independently wherever they are needed in the region. Sri Lanka Navy by virtue of its operations has a very proud and strong history of working closely with our neighbours, as well as global friends and allies.

This relationship and tradition will become increasingly important as we head into an uncertain security future where the only things, we know to expect is the unexpected.

I am concerned that the amazing, interesting and admirable work our maritime sector does silently on a daily basis is not properly understood by our stakeholders. Like most navies, we suffer from an understandable, but unfortunate, lack of awareness by the general public.

Perhaps it is understandable in part because our citizens now mainly concentrate only on the fishery resources and have almost no exposure to ships or to the other ocean marine and maritime industry. They have become unfamiliar with the vital role that the ocean plays in global trade, commerce and security.

However, the role that the Sri Lanka Navy has to play today to secure the coast and the vast area of seas around, make them to plan how best it can use its manpower, resources, infrastructure and platforms to meet current and emerging challenges.

Blue economy

The blue planet earth is dominated by the maritime domain, with over 70 per cent of its surface is covered by water. Nearly 80 per cent of the world population lives within 200 nautical miles of the coast and about 90 per cent of the world’s trade transits by sea. Oceans are central to life on earth.

The world economy is tightly interconnected. Over the past four decades, total sea borne trade has more than quadrupled: 90 percent of world trade and two-thirds of its petroleum are transported by sea.

The sea-lanes and supporting shore infrastructure are the lifelines of the modern global economy, visible and vulnerable symbols of the modern distribution system that relies on free transit through increasingly urbanised littoral regions is what needed.

The concept of Blue Economy has opened a new horizon for economic development of the coastal countries through utilising sea and marine resources at national and international level. The concept has become a buzzword for sustainable development particularly in drafting the post-2015 development goals.

It is argued that, island nations like us depend on oceanic economic activities like fisheries and commercial transportation. Coastal and Island developing countries have remained at the forefront of this Blue Economy advocacy, recognising that the oceans have a major role to play in humanity’s future.

Therefore, it is necessary to consider blue economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication as one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development as it contribute to eradicating poverty as well as sustained economic growth, enhancing social inclusion, improving human welfare and creating opportunities for employment and decent work for all while maintaining the healthy functioning of the earth’s ecosystem.

Blue economy conceptualises oceans as ‘Development Spaces’ where spatial planning integrates conservation, sustainable use, oil and mineral wealth extraction, bioprospecting, sustainable energy production and marine transport.

The following areas could be identified as the fundamental principles in blue economy to support ocean industry, ocean commerce, ocean science and maritime operations;

a. Optimising the benefits received from the development of their marine environments such as fishery agreements, bio prospecting, oil and mineral extraction.

b. Promoting national equity, including gender equality, and in particular the generation of inclusive growth and decent jobs for all.

c. Properly reflecting in the development of seas beyond national jurisdiction, including the refinement of international governance mechanisms and their concerns as States proximate to seabed development.

The role of marine resources in poverty alleviation, acquiring in food productions, protecting environmental balance, facing adverse impacts of climate change and other economic possibilities are unlimited. But with the potentialities and possibilities the challenges also accompany.

The following may be the challenges:

a. Ensuring the sovereignty over the total coastal area.

b. Maintaining the security over the economic area.

c. Establishing marine friendly infrastructure for marine tourist.

d. Protecting the area from the international smugglers.

e. Maintaining and investment friendly environment in the awarded area.

f. Sustainable use of biodiversity.

g. Maintaining marine and coastal ecosystems.

h. Preserving mangrove and sea grass.

i. Addressing climate change and managing carbon emission.

j. Maintaining sea level rise and change in ecosystems and temperatures from coral bleaching.

k. Addressing ocean acidification and blue carbon.

l. Keeping the sea area free from pollution and marine debris.

m. The growing human population, intensification of agriculture.

n. Technical challenges in exploration and extraction of mineral carbon and oil resources from the seabed.

o. Involved high cost

Future of sea power

Expansion of the global system has increased the prosperity of many nations. Yet their continued growth may create increasing competition for resources and capital with other economic powers.

Heightened popular expectations and increased competition for resources, coupled with scarcity, may encourage nations to exert wider claims of sovereignty over greater expanses of ocean, waterways, and natural resources which will result in conflicts amongst nations. Similarly, technology is rapidly expanding marine activities such as energy development, resource extraction, and other commercial activity in and under the oceans. Hence, climate change is inevitable while these developments offer opportunities for growth, they are potential sources of competition and conflict for access and natural resources.

Globalisation and multiculturalism will also be shaping human migration patterns, health, education, culture, and the conduct of conflict.

Those conflicts may increase and are characterised by a hybrid blend of traditional and irregular tactics, de-centralised planning and execution, and non-state actors using both simple and sophisticated technologies in innovative ways. Weak or corrupt governments, growing dissatisfaction among the disenfranchised, religious extremism, ethnic nationalism, and changing demographics often spurred on by the uneven and sometimes unwelcome advances of globalisation which exacerbate tensions and are contributors to conflict.

Concurrently, a rising number of transnational actors and rogue states, encouraged and enabled with unprecedented access to the global stage could cause widespread disruptions in an effort to increase their power and influence.

Their actions, often designed to purposely incite conflict between other parties, will complicate attempts to defuse and allay regional conflict.

Proliferation of weapons technology and information has increased the capacity of nation-states and transnational actors to challenge maritime access, evade accountability for attacks, and manipulate public perception.

A symmetric use of technology will pose a range of threats to the United States and its partners. Even more worrisome, the appetite for nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is growing among nations and non-state antagonists.

At the same time, attacks on legal, financial, and cyber systems can be equally, if not more, disruptive than kinetic weapons.

Nuclear disarmament and national policies of non-aggression being incorporated to strategic engagement by relevant sea powers will pave the way for a hopeful future with no destructive confrontations but a collaborative approach for a viable solution for peace and economic development.


Sri Lanka’s maritime geography has had a strong influence on our history and our view of the world.

As an island nation, Sri Lanka is particularly dependent on maritime trade. Safety, security and freedom of movement at sea are critical to our economic prosperity and security.

So, we must work with other nations to keep global trade moving and to promote ‘good order at sea’ with all the legitimate sea farers. Not just for the region, but the entire global community.

The silent but significant and positive and contributary impact that our seafarers and merchant marine make to our national economy being employed at sea and in port operations around the world requires further recognition, support and development as a matter of urgency.By securing our maritime environment we protect Sri Lanka’s national interests while contributing to regional security and stability.

Sri Lanka’s maritime interests in the region are growing, particularly as we work together with regional nations to promote security and prosperity.

Sea power, and the way that navies operate in the 21st century must also adapt to this evolving environment. The judicious and measured use of sea power will require much greater levels of global cooperation, increased interoperability and a better shared understanding of the nature of the threats we face.

The bottom line is that we face an increasingly uncertain future, with a mix of traditional and non-traditional threats to our security. This requires us to be prepared with a range of responses up to, and including, lethal force.

On the international stage, Sri Lanka strongly emphasises cooperation as the basis for stability, especially the relationship with regional powers. We are practicing a diversified approach to the management and prioritisation of its vast maritime area. Hence, we need more broad cooperation and a pragmatic policy based on mutual respect for the parties concerned.

Sri Lanka is in the fortunate position of being on very good terms with our near neighbours as well as other nations. We aim to be open and transparent in our dealings with other nations and I am proud to note that the Sri Lanka Navy has always played a significant role in building confidence, capacity, engagement with understanding and rapport between nations.

The unprecedented success of the 2010 Sri Lanka Navy’s 60th anniversary celebrations with all leading sea powers of the world and the region physically presenting themselves in Colombo in their strength and the 10-year internationally acclaimed progress of the “Galle Dialogue” International Maritime Conference inaugurated in 2009 are clear evidence of Sri Lanka Navy’s initiative for collaborative policy for its strategic vision and engagement.

In spite of having a relatively small population, Sri Lanka continues to attract regional and global powers in various pretexts to achieve their national interest of global reach and naval and maritime domination in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka being a country that has honourably practised neutrality and nonalignment within a democratic framework in their long history is now faced with influential friends, who are economically and militarily powerful, willing to engage in various modes of investment.

Sri Lanka’s clean record of neutrality, non-involvement and tried and tested democratic practices will give a clear and strong message to interested parties ready to engage with Sri Lanka.

Every such investment will carry the obvious element of self-interest that Sri Lanka as a smart nation should be capable of rationalising and visualising strategically to understand accurately their intentions and our best options.

Anticipating and using the regional and the global picture and Geostrategic position and requirements with an open mind, is considered the prudent approach advantageous to our own benefits and interests. Accordingly, suitable engagements in education, national defence, economic stability, connectivity, and internal national mechanisms to protect and sustain the population stand out as top priorities in this endeavour.

It is well understood that self-interest is the motivator of economic investment and the competition is the economic regulator. Together these two elements of self-interest and competition guide resources to the most needed and valued position that would yield desired positive results.

The late Admiral Clancy Fernando has tried to shape the thinking of Sea Power of this island state in 80’s.

In 1985 and in 1987, he has authored several articles that have chapters discussing these elements that are very prominent today.

Just as he analysed the necessity of Killali Lagoon operations in 1991 after the Elephant Pass siege, I am of the opinion that he could have used his weight to focus on matters related to sea power in today’s geo-strategic context had we continued to cherish his leadership. In an era of the end of the cold war in Indian Ocean the late Admiral foresaw the necessities of securing national interests on the oceans, taking examples of the past history which was his forte!

In conclusion I wish to leave you with the thought of the term “Smart Power” which in my opinion determines the success of a nation. This is the use of a right balance of a country’s “Hard Power” of military and economic means as an approach to international political relations that is combined and merged with the “Soft Power” of attraction and persuasion through business, educational, cultural, societal, technological and digital strength for exerting and influencing foreign policy and political will and values.

Sea Power of an island nation must therefore, be sensibly and judiciously manoeuvred between Hard and Soft Power to be a “Smart Power”.