President Ranil Wickremesinghe answered a range of questions ranging from the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to Sri Lanka’s relations with the rest of the world in a question and answer session at the ‘Ocean Nations: The 3rd Annual Indo-Pacific Islands Dialogue in New York. The conversation was moderated by Dan Baer, Senior Vice President for Policy Research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. During this event, he highlighted the reluctance of island nations in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific to become embroiled in the rivalry between major world powers. The President emphasized that these nations are focused on their own priorities, including social, economic, and ecological development and seek to maintain their sovereignty and independence.
President Wickremesinghe asserted that Sri Lanka’s government does not align itself with either India or China and firmly stands for Sri Lanka’s interests above all else. This commitment to sovereignty extends to other island nations in the region.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Q: How do you see Sri Lanka’s position looking out at the world and the interest it has in engaging with the world as being unique in part because of its role as an island in the Indo-Pacific?
A: A person asked me whether we are pro-Indian or pro-Chinese, so I said definitely I am not Pro-Indian and added by saying I am also not pro-Chinese. So he asked me then, are you neutral? I said no, I am not neutral. I am pro-Sri Lankan, and that’s what a lot of people don’t understand. Today, our priorities are not the same as those of the big powers and others in the region, whether it be the Indian Ocean or whether it be the South Pacific Islands. Our priorities are different – economic, social, ecological. We are prepared to work with any actor, state, or non-state actor who will help us to achieve these objectives. So we are working with the West and with China. This is basically Sri Lanka and others; the South Pacific Islands are all in the same boat. We feel that the Indo-Sino-US rivalry is something that started in the Western Pacific, in the structured area of Asia Pacific, and it still functions.They all meet; you have APEC. But now it has spread out both to the Indian Ocean and to the South Pacific. Why are we getting pulled into it? It is difficult for us to understand. Of course, we are crucial. The South Pacific and Indian Ocean are crucial strategically. We are strategic, but just because we are strategic, it doesn’t mean that we are involved in any military alliances with China or anyone else. It is in this background that we have to look at the geopolitics of our own islands.
Q: When you talk about Sri Lanka’s position, kind of willing to work with both China and the US, if we reduce it to that right now, it could be understood as a kind of hedging back and forth to extract as much as possible. Is there something more sophisticated in this strategy?
A: Sri Lanka never hedges back and forth to extract something from someone. We haven’t. Throughout our island we have to deal with all powers that come in. We may have played one against the other, but that’s for our survival. In this case we are not doing that either. It is the inability to understand the nature of Indian Ocean and South Pacific which is creating this. None of the countries involved seems to understand our geopolitics and what we do.
Q: Lately in Washington, there’s an enormous focus on I mean, the word Indo-Pacific has become a much more common term in the last five years. You wonder whether a rose by any other name might smell as sweet. Would the Indo-Pacific be a strategic framework if it weren’t labeled as that?
A: Indo-Pacific is still an artificial framework. Because if you look at IORA, it says the Indian Ocean comes from the Indian Ocean Rim and the waters therein. Indo-Pacific, no one knows. For some people the Indo-Pacific ends on the western boundary of India. Others take it on to Africa, then some end up with Western Pacific. Others go to South Pacific. What is this Indo-Pacific? I became Deputy Foreign Minister in 1977. I have seen China and the US taking on India and Russia. Now I am seeing the US and India taking on Russia and China. That’s all that has happened. You are trying to find an excuse to bring all of us in.
Q: So granting for a moment that the term Indo-Pacific has caused some strategic gaps from people in Washington or maybe even in Beijing. You mentioned IORA and I know Sri Lanka is about to take over the chairmanship. Give me a sense of what a more strategic view is and how you’re thinking about that chairmanship.
A: If I look at the developments there, there is the next round of rivalry going on and that’s taking place in Asia. It’s a question of China versus US. How are they going to divide their region of influence in Asia, because it contains certainly, firstly the South China Sea, Taiwan and then East China Sea. So it is within this that you are trying to work this out. The US has been very particular about its base in East Asia. You know in 1997 when Japan proposed the Asian IMF, the US got hold of China and killed it. From what we see, it is a game that has been going on. This is more because it involves military power and a reach which Japan never had to go out there. But it’s basically geopolitics and power politics. But why are you pulling us into it?
Q: I understand the criticism of US policy and Chinese policy. What’s the affirmative agenda for Sri Lanka? When you sit in Colombo, what are you trying to accomplish in the region for Sri Lanka?
A: What we are trying to do is for the country to develop. We know we are the main island, the strategic island in the region. So what we want to do is to develop and for that, there are many options available. China has come up with its maritime silk route. India is coming up with SAGAR. Japan still has the best network for foreign assistance, we want to use that and develop the country.
Q: You recently signed a new agreement with the IMF as part of your effort to Shore up the economy and I wonder if you take a bigger view over the next three to five years. What do you think the International Financial Institutions can do to support the aspiration to both get the economy stabilized and also to invest in the way that you would like to invest in Sri Lanka’s role in the region?
A: With the IMF and others we are doing far-reaching economic restructuring. Of course they give a growth rate of about 3.5 percent but we want to ensure it goes to about 5.5 percent to 6 percent. That’s our own effort. The issue of global debt and low-income countries, has to be resolved in the next few years. But that can have adverse impacts even on Sri Lanka. We are looking at development. We are talking with India on having a land bridge or land connectivity. Either through a roll-on-roll-off ferry or through some form of a bridge. With India we are negotiating the comprehensive economic and technological partnership. We also applied to join the RCEP so that our markets become bigger. We have no military ambitions.
Q: What are your three priorities in terms of the economy right now?
A: The economic reforms and certainly shedding our bankruptcy status, within it the lowest hanging fruit is tourism. Next is food security, modernizing agriculture. From there we will work the rest out.
Q: You mentioned Sri Lanka’s uniqueness as an island, both geographically and partly because of its size. Many of the islands that are participating in this dialogue have a much smaller population. Do you see a role for Sri Lanka as a kind of group spokesperson for articulating the special interests of islands?
A: We will articulate the special interests of the islands, but also the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is taking over the chair of IORA which has to be strengthened structurally. We will work on that. The Indian Ocean is now going through a sort of a new power arrangement. Firstly there is QUAD. The QUAD is joining up with G7 and they are talking of bringing NATO in. Then you got the AUKUS, which is against the IORA because IORA will not have military alliances in the Indian Ocean. AUKUS is a military alliance. As far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, we don’t want any military activity. I don’t think the majority of the Indian Ocean States will want NATO anywhere close by. France, yes, France has a stake in the Indian Ocean. We are very worried whether the European powers would be brought in. The Ukraine war has changed the situation because most countries haven’t joined in the condemnation of the Ukraine War. The Western Asian region is benefiting from the war. If you look at the number of the refineries using Russian oil, Iranian oil, so basically the Russian economy is running through West Asia. Thirdly, the emergence of a new power alignment in the Indian Ocean with the expansion of BRICS. Now they brought in Iran, UAE, Saudi, Egypt. Now you are finding a counterbalance to the QUAD in the BRICS plus. Then what does India do? They are partly in the QUAD and they are partly in the BRICS. So these are new issues that are coming up. It is becoming more complex now than the Pacific. So this is just the beginning. Sri Lanka has taken over the chair at a very crucial time.
Q: I think there are a number of people, myself included, who would challenge the proposition that the West is benefiting from Russia’s war against Ukraine and would argue that actually Russia’s war against Ukraine is costing everyone including the two participants in that war. But I wonder how you see the kind of principles of international law that are at stake in that war as affecting Sri Lanka, if at all.
A: What are the principles of international law that are there in Ukraine?
Q: Respect for international borders – a majority of the UN Member States has condemned the violation of borders by force. War crimes are part of international law and the use of war crimes as a tool of war by the Russian state is a violation of laws.
A: Russia has invaded Ukraine. There’s no question about it. The issue is that this has taken place but did Europe take sufficient steps to avoid this war because of the worry that two world wars started in Europe. Europe had to be bailed out by you all and the Russians and the rest of us in Asia and Africa. So why is it that they didn’t resolve this issue. You are talking about Ukraine. Why have you not sorted out Palestine for 75 years.
Q: That one is not for lack of trying by a number of parties.
A: I’m only telling you what they are saying. Basically it was not the time for anyone to go into fighting. The beneficiaries have been some of the Western Asian states, not Sri Lanka. We have lost out. The entire world is suffering because of this fight. Everyone wants the war to come to an end. The Ukraine war has brought a new situation in that, in that this has become the centre towards West Asia. Right or wrong, it has become a centre. Then you get BRICS operating there. So something new is coming up on the Western Indian Ocean and with China’s connections to that, it can change the picture.
Q: You mentioned AUKUS, which isn’t a formal alliance, but is an agreement between several powers. Do you think that there’s any opportunity for, as you take on the chairmanship of IORA, any opportunity for dialogue between the participants in AUKUS and IORA to try to reconcile some of the tensions that you recognize?
A: Aukus is a military alliance. It’s moved against one country, China. When they did Aukus, they forgot that there was an IORA agreement, the Jakarta Declaration and also the IOPZ Resolution in the UN but AUKUS falls into that category in our view.
Q: Okay, is there an opportunity for that?
A: No, and secondly, okay. I am asking another question. It’s a military one. What is Britain going to do in the Pacific? Have they got any planes? What will happen if they come during wartime, if that American aircraft which can be used against, say, if you have to use it on China, will be spent on protecting the Prince of Wales or Queen Elizabeth? Without that it will go down just like the original Prince of Wales. So actually it’s a disadvantage for you. If they turn up for the simple reason you will have to divert your planes which can be used on an offensive role into a defensive role. You will lose about 75 to 100 planes if you get in there.
Q: Aukus is a strategic misstep by the participants ?
A: I think it’s a strategic misstep. I think they made a mistake. And it’s not for me to correct it. I don’t think it was needed. I think it’s a burden on the US. Putting out your planes on a defensive role when it should have been put on an offensive role? That’s all I have to say.
Q: Let’s turn to the BRICS expansion, the BRICS Plus. I can see why that could be a story about a kind of emerging constellation of actors who could counterbalance in some way a G7 or something like that. But do you think there are any tensions built into this BRICS plus idea?
A: I would say, getting on to the G7, I mean, I don’t think it counts very much in my view. If you take the US out, what else is there?
Q: There are a number of other advances?
A: As for the expansion of BRICS I have spoken to some of them. They think this is being dominated too much by both the G7 and by the QUAD. I feel it’s their thing and they have arrived and they are not going to give up their rights.
Q: Chinese research vessels and spy ships visited Sri Lanka and you’ve introduced a standard operating procedure for foreign vessels. How effective is this given China’s significant geo-economics presence in Sri Lanka?
A: There are no spy ships in Sri Lanka. I don’t know if anyone can establish it is a spy ship. There are research ships because the China Academy of Science has agreements with the National Aquatic Research Agency and some of the universities and under that only that research ships have come in here and the research ships have been coming in for the last 10 years. So it’s not an issue there, but there was a question raised by one of the countries whether it can be used for spying. We don’t know that. A standing operating procedure was set by the Sri Lanka Navy. Recently we had discussions with India and we’ve now opted we’ve taken on all the amendments. So any ships that come in now are according to our operation procedure, which we have done together with India. I can’t see any ship that’s a threat coming in through that operating procedure.
Q: On Climate Change, what are the most important ways in which countries around the world can act in support of Sri Lanka’s clean ocean and green tech efforts?
A: We are discussing that, especially with Europe and Korea, Japan and the US. We have brought out a climate prosperity plan and we are working on that. So it’s a question of finding technical assistance. We are working to accelerate our date from 2050 to 2040.
Q: You mentioned that tourism was part of the low hanging fruit in terms of economic development. Are there any reforms that you think are important to unlock that low-hanging fruit?
A: We are going through reforms in the tourism sector. We are taking the state agency out and bringing the private sector to lead the markets. I have given them the targets from two and a half million, we must go up to five million. And we should earn at least 500 to 700 US dollars a night per person. It is a complete upgrading. I don’t think Government agencies can do it. But private people, both Sri Lankans and outsiders are coming in. It will be a complete overhaul.
Q: What does a rules-based order mean for Sri Lanka?
A: For Sri Lanka rules-based order is an order that is based on the rules made by the Indian Ocean Rim Association. In the Indian Ocean, that’s all.
Q: And there’s no global perspective?
A: The first one is freedom of navigation. I would favour a freedom of navigation agreement for the Indian Ocean on two conditions. The US must sign it. And China must sign it and abide by the decision of the tribunal. We have the Law of the Sea and then we find it’s not being observed fully and we are not the culprits.
Q: I want to ask two questions in closing. One is, if you could observe, offer an observation on what you think about the development of the US-India relationship and what that means for Sri Lanka. What do you expect out of that relationship in the next 10 years?
A: We could see the US-India relationship moving closer. And both of them acting together, it’s a matter for them to decide just as much as Pakistan wants to work with China. We’ve got to learn to live with all that, provided they are no threat to our Independence.
Q: I appreciate your being willing to jump back and forth through different subject matters and take some hard questions. We’re delighted to have you here at the Islands Dialogue, and I think it’s really important that Sri Lanka continues to play a leading role in being a voice for the region, because there are such unique challenges that can’t be solved alone in the region and that need the voice of the region to guide engagement from others.
A: Keep an eye on the Indian Ocean.