PM argues for greater naval role in Indian Ocean

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2017-03-19

BY GAGANI WEERAKOON

With Somali pirates seizing a Comoros-flagged oil tanker which had eight Sri Lankan crew members
on board, the first hijacking since 2012 has once again revived the necessity in ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean, and other regions.

The Foreign Ministry, in the immediate aftermath of the release of the Sri Lankan crew on board the oil-tanker Aris 13, without demanding any ransom, an extremely unusual phenomenon, noted that international military together with diplomatic pressure forced Somali pirates to release the oil tanker.

The dialogue on ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region has been the topic of recent years and attention on Sri Lanka was drawn-in increasingly with both India and the United States of America showing concerns on the increasing presence of Chinese in the island with the end of two and half decades long war in 2009.

India, on many occasions, has raised its concerns over the matter, earlier with the proposed Colombo Port City Project and now over the ongoing plans to handover the Hambontota Harbour and adjoining lands, to be developed as an industrial zone, to China.

The Indian Ocean region which relatively remained peaceful when compared to other maritime spaces in the Asian region which witnessed ongoing territorial disputes, has however, shown indicators of growing disputes in future.

It is in the midst of this that Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, argued for a greater naval role for safety of civilian traffic citing the importance of the waters around Sri Lanka. Addressing a counter-terror conference in New Delhi over video link from Colombo, Premier Wickremesinghe said more terror attacks were likely to target the maritime sector in the future.

"Non-State actors targeting the logistics and infrastructure sector will become a nightmare in the future. Complexities of maritime security require Navies to rethink their role," the Prime Minister said during his address at the leadership section of the annual counter-terror conference by the India Foundation.

Indicating Sri Lanka's role in ensuring global maritime security, he has said the Indian Ocean region was the connector between the energy sources of the Gulf region and energy consumers of Asia. "In this context, he lauded the March 5-7 Conference of the Indian Ocean Region in Jakarta where the Ministers also adopted the "IORA Declaration on Preventing and Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism", Indian media reported.

The government at various international fora has expressed its aim to position the country more as that centre of the Indian Ocean by maximizing its relationships with both historic and new trading partners to leverage the geo-strategic position to make Sri Lanka a hub of the Indian Ocean as well as a transshipment port for the Bay of Bengal trade.

To fully tap this potential, Sri Lanka is engaging in initiatives with regional players who have major economic stakes in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is now pushing towards further integrating with the world by undertaking reforms to facilitate trade, and encourage productive foreign investment.

For the first time in five centuries, global economic balance of power is once again shifting towards Asia. It is estimated that by 2030, Asia will surpass North America and Europe combined in global power based on GDP, population size, military spending and technological investments.

The busy East-West shipping route passes just six to ten nautical miles south of the island with more than 60,000 ships plying this route annually carrying two-thirds of global petroleum supply and half of all containerized cargo.

Thus, Sri Lanka's situation in the nautical corridor between the East and West is of importance not only from a geostrategic perspective, but also from maritime economics and security perspectives.

The blue-water naval capabilities of key Asian States have ushered a new strategic environment, and the Indian Ocean has become an extremely important geo-strategic space.

While the maritime space of Asia is strongly connected to the Indian and the Pacific Ocean through trade and commerce routes, there is a difference in the power dynamics of the Pacific and the Indian oceans.

The power play in the Pacific is dominated by its proximity to the US, centrality to US security policies, and now the rise of Chinese naval power. In contrast, the Indian Ocean Region has maintained a multipolar characteristic.

Unlike the Asia Pacific, the Indian Ocean region is not economically integrated.

No single power or a coalition will be able to maintain peace and stability on their own in the Indian Ocean. In capacity terms also, no country is capable of handling the maritime security threats and challenges in isolation, no matter how advanced and developed it might be.

In addition, it is preferable that the region continues its historical multi-polar characteristic and prevent a spillover of tension from other regions.In such a background, all maritime nations have a role to play in ensuring the overall balance of strategic weight.

Smaller nations such as Sri Lanka, even with comparatively limited maritime resources can become an integral element of maritime security in the region.

"It is our view that the Indian Ocean is in need of a mutually benefiting security architecture established on a multilateral basis.There is also space for an effective multilateral governing structure. In this regard, I may add that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka has expressed an interest in crafting an Indian Ocean Order with accepted rules and agreements that would guide interactions between states," Dr. Harsha de Silva, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs recently said at a Public Forum organized by the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe also previously has called for Indian Ocean Order to be built on a consensual agreement without allowing any singular State to dominate the system.

"The Indian Ocean Order would have the primary responsibility of upholding the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean, ensuring that shipping and air routes to East Asia and beyond are kept open, building closer economic cooperation amongst countries in the region. In this regard, my Prime Minister called for a dialogue between SAARC and ASEAN leaders. Perhaps that can happen sooner than later and we would be delighted to play a role," de Silva said.

Pacific Command

It is evident that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe-led government is keen on keeping more weight on US Pacific Command in ensuring the security of the Indian Ocean.

Americans, for a long time have indicated their interest in positioning their Pacific Command in the Indian Ocean, but things seems to fall in place only recently with both India and Sri Lanka showing interests to support the idea.

The first sign of this was US Navy's Seventh Fleet Flagship, USS Blue Ridge, arriving in Colombo on 26 March 2016 for a five-day port call, with 900 sailors on board.

As Vijith Samarasinghe writing to the World Socialist Website precisely points out, in a display of the Colombo government's willingness to align itself with the US, President Maithripala Sirisena visited the warship as part of the official welcome. Later, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya boarded the Blue Ridge and participated in a reception with the naval officers and the US Ambassador to Colombo, Atul Keshap.

"A strong relationship between the United States and Sri Lanka will help foster greater stability, security, prosperity, and a rules-based order for the Indo-Pacific region and around the world," said US Ambassador Atul Keshap at the occasion, while adding: "This US Navy-ship-visit demonstrates the US commitment to partners such as Sri Lanka."

The USS Blue Ridge has been forward deployed to Yokosuka, Japan for 36 years. As the command and control flagship for the US 7th Fleet, under Commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, the USS Blue Ridge is committed to strengthening and fostering relationships within the Indo-Asia Pacific region, US Embassy announced at the time.

This is the very first visit by a United States ship in five years. We are thrilled to have them here and hope this will be the first of many to come, Ambassador Keshap said indicating the visit was far from being a symbolic gesture of goodwill between the two nations.

"So, if you will permit me, I would like to offer a toast on behalf of all the folks on the podium and all of you: I would like to propose a toast to the future of US and Sri Lanka friendship for the good of our two countries and for the entire world," were his remarks that evening.

In November 2011, Hillary Clinton, the then Secretary of State, in her Foreign Policy article 'America's Pacific Century' has defined the Asia-Pacific as "stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans – the Pacific and the Indian – that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy".

In his 17 November, 2011 address to the Australian Parliament, President Obama said that the future being sought in the Asia-Pacific was 'security, prosperity and dignity for all'.

On the other hand, the Strategic Guidance Document published by the US Department of Defence in 2012 stated that, "US economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean Region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities".

It did not take long for Sri Lanka to respond, when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka Navy will have to play a huge role in protecting international sea routes which are necessary in international trade in creating a strong economy. "Creating a strong economy in the country within the next five years will involve international trade along the main sea routes. As such, the Sri Lanka Navy will have to play a big role in protecting international (sea) trade routes throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond, without restricting it to the Sri Lanka Economic Zone only," Prime Minister said addressing a Commissioning Parade held at the main parade ground of the Naval and Maritime Academy in Trincomalee, where 44 Midshipmen belonging to the 29th (Technical) and 30th intakes of General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) passed out as Commissioned Officers of the Sri Lanka Navy.

Why Indian Ocean?

Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command who was in New Delhi said, US and Indian navies have been sharing information on the movement of Chinese submarines and ships in the Indian Ocean. He also said, India should be concerned about the increasing Chinese influence in the region.

"There is sharing of information regarding Chinese maritime movement in the Indian Ocean," Admiral Harris said. The US, he said, works "closely with India and with improving India's capability to do that kind of surveillance. Malabar exercise...helps us hone our ability to track what China is doing in the Indian Ocean. Chinese submarines are clearly an issue and we know they are operating through the region," he was quoted as saying in Indian media.

Delivering the Keynote address at Raisina Dialogue he said the self-proclaimed 'Islamic State' is a clear threat that must be destroyed.

"The main thrust of the 68 nation coalition's military effort against this group is rightfully in the Middle East and North Africa. But as ISIL is eliminated in these areas, some of the surviving foreign fighters will likely return to the countries from whence they came. What's worse is that they'll be radicalized and weaponized.

"We've seen the beginning of this trend in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. It's not a theory... it's real. In the past year alone, ISIL has made its murderous intentions clear in places like Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and the United States.

"It's clear that ISIL wants to conduct its bloody attacks right here in this country. But so far, ISIL's plans for operations in India have been thwarted by the diligent work of India's law enforcement, intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies.

"The international community must continue the work to stop them. Neither the US nor India can do it alone. To halt ISIL's cancerous spread, like-minded nations in this region and across the globe must continue to work together. Multinational collaboration – partnership with a purpose – is the treatment to prevent this ISIL disease from metastasizing in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

"But ISIL isn't our only immediate threat in the vast Indo-Asia-Pacific. North Korea stands out as the only nation to have tested nuclear weapons in this century. Now, I want you to stop for a minute and really think about this. Combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology in the hands of a volatile leader like Kim Jong-un, is a recipe for disaster.

"I know there's some debate about the miniaturization advancements made by Pyongyang. But PACOM must be prepared to fight tonight, so I take them at their word. I must assume that their claims are true – their aspirations certainly are.

"Vain, vicious, and volatile dictators are nothing new in the long, dark history of mankind. But what is new is a vain, vicious, and volatile dictator with his fingers on a nuclear trigger. This is why we must consider every possible step to defend the US homeland and our allies and partners throughout the region.

"As former US Secretary of Defence, Bill Perry famously said, we have to deal with North Korea "as it is, not as we wish it to be".

And today, it poses a very real threat to the US and our friends and allies in the region.

"Other significant challenges are posed by a revanchist Russia and an increasingly assertive China. Both Moscow and Beijing have choices to make. They can choose to disregard the rules-based international order or they can contribute to it as responsible stakeholders. The US obviously prefers they choose to act responsibly".

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