Is Sri Lanka Engaging with the Indo-Pacific?

October 8, 2019        Reading Time: 5 minutes

Reading Time: 5 min read

Image Credits: U.S. Pacific Fleet/flickr

Nilupul Gunawardena*

The Indo-Pacific is now at the forefront of the global geopolitical discourse as an important regional strategy involving the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. The outer delimitation of the Indo-Pacific region remains nebulous.1 Yet, this concept has attracted global attention, perhaps due to its significant geopolitical and geostrategic implications, and perhaps, due to the vast natural resources and the strategically vital sea lines of communication that are found within the region. A fortiori, one can be certain that with major global powers increasingly engaging within the Indo-Pacific region, it is poised to become the centre of global economic activity, geopolitics, and security dynamics.

Sri Lanka maintains close ties with all the major powers of the Indo-Pacific region. This includes cooperation in infrastructure development, trade, security, and people-to-people contact. While Sri Lanka cannot play a defining role in the overarching Indo-Pacific strategy and may perhaps even not have a strategy of its own, it remains in Sri Lanka’s best interest to engage with these major powers through continued cooperation in all areas that could benefit Sri Lanka.

Figure 1

The Multipolar Future of the Indo-Pacific Region?

The importance of the Indian and Pacific oceans was first reflected in a 2007 speech by Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe.2 Since then this concept has been actively advocated by global leaders including both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump.3 The US sees the Indo-Pacific as a geographic entity strengthening economic and security in the region. India, on the other hand, has attached less significance to the geographical demarcation and considers the Indo-Pacific as a geostrategic construct with ASEAN as the central connection between the two oceans.4 This perhaps reflects India’s aspirations to take a leading strategic role throughout the Indian Ocean and to expand its strategic reach to the Pacific region.

Given the lack of an overarching long-term strategy, emerging powers, have adopted their own approach to advance the Indo-Pacific vision. Indonesia, for example, shifted its maritime policy from an ASEAN-based regionalist focus towards a more nationalist vision in which Indonesia’s future was to be a Global Maritime Axis.5 Indonesia has undertaken a series of actions to support this vision on a regional and global basis, through its membership of the United Nations Security Council. However, while all these states promote the need to achieve stability and prosperity through a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, they have different conceptual and strategic approaches.

Inevitably, differing views of the Indo-Pacific have provided a backdrop for increasing geopolitical and geostrategic competition between the rising powers. At one end, states primarily support the current global governance status quo, while at the other end, some states wish to upend or at least refashion the US-led global governance structure.6 As a result, in practice, the Indo-Pacific construct will remain multipolar, at least for the moment. Nonetheless, the varying strategies of nascent states tethered into this concept indicate its powerful salience and a promising future.

Sri Lanka at the Epicentre of a New Great Game

The Indo-Pacific as a single regional construct remains at an early stage and its implications for Sri Lanka are unclear. However, Sri Lanka is engaging with countries under the Indo-Pacific heading, including but not limited to significant bilateral cooperation with these major powers in areas such as trade, security, socio-cultural, and infrastructure development. Sri Lanka has conducted joint military exercises with India, China and Australia, and has an exchange military training program with the US. Sri Lanka has shown a willingness to continue to pursue a proactive multi-actor engagement strategy in military, economic, judicial and academic areas, to realise this goal.

Sri Lanka sees the multi-layered regionalism approach as an opportunity to position itself as a trade and maritime hub of the Indian Ocean.7 With nearly 60% of Sri Lanka’s total trade occurring with the major powers of the Indo-Pacific, Sri Lanka is expanding its trade links with these nations. The recently concluded free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore is one such example that may provide an opportunity to establish cooperation with other important regional fora such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Sri Lanka is currently negotiating FTAs with other major regional economies, including China and Thailand, and hopes to expand the current FTA with India to cover services. Sri Lanka also hopes to conclude the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) FTA to further integrate regional trade.8

As Sri Lanka grapples with the tepid economic development—the result of a three-decade civil conflict and more recently, the Easter attacks—domestic expectations are high. With further engagement, Sri Lanka stands to benefit from regional schemes such as the US government’s efforts to advance sustainable infrastructure through the Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network and the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act.9 It further includes assistance for a number of development schemes involving digital connectivity and expanding opportunities for US technology exports through the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership.

While Sri Lanka may be poised to benefit from these initiatives, due to its strategic location, Sri Lanka has become a terrain for strategic competition between major powers, including China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept initiated by the Quad states (US, India, Japan, and Australia). The present Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration shows a more Asia-oriented foreign policy, within its non-aligned framework, balancing the influence from India, China, and the US.

The Way Forward

Considering the global geostrategic nature of the Indo-Pacific, Sri Lanka is unlikely to play a leading role in formulating an Indo-Pacific strategy nor have a strategy for Indo-Pacific. Yet, Sri Lanka’s close ties with the major players of the Indo-Pacific will provide an opportunity to derive benefit in areas such as infrastructure development, trade, security, and people-to-people contact.

As Sri Lanka charts a new course for itself in the region through a more proactive role in regional geopolitics10, it is imperative for Sri Lanka to formulate an Indo-Pacific approach while balancing other regional and global powers. Sri Lanka cannot progress in isolation. If we attempt to do so, we will continue to lock out ourselves into the South Asian region, with the opportunities of linking with others being reduced for at least the foreseeable future.

Notes

1Das, U. (2019). What is the Indo-Pacific? The Diplomat. [Online] Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/what-is-the-indo-pacific/ [Accessed 3 October 2019].
2Abe, S. (2007). Confluence of the Two Seas: Speech delivered at the Parliament of the Republic of India. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. [Online] Available at: https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html [Accessed 3 October 2019].
3Ayres, A. (2019). The U.S. Indo Pacific Strategy Needs More Indian Ocean. Council on Foreign Relations. [Online] Available at: https://www.cfr.org/expert-brief/us-indo-pacific-strategy-needs-more-indian-ocean [Accessed 3 October 2019].
4Weatherbee, D. (2019). Indonesia, ASEAN, and the Indo-Pacific Cooperation Concept. Yusof Ishak Institute.
5Parameswaran, P. (2019). Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific Approach: Between Promises and Perils. The Diplomat. [Online] Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/indonesias-indo-pacific-approach-between-promises-and-perils/ [Accessed 3 October 2019].
6Canon, B & Rossiter, A. (2018). The “Indo-Pacific”: Regional Dynamics in the 21st Century’s New Geopolitical Center of Gravity. Rising Powers Project Quarterly. 3(2):7-17. Available at:
http://risingpowersproject.com/issue/the-indo-pacific-regional-dynamics-in-the-21st-centurys-new-geopolitical-center-of-gravity/ [Accessed 3 October 2019].
7Wickremesinghe, R. (2018). Speech delivered at the 3rd Indian Ocean Conference: Delivered at Hanoi, Vietnam on 27 August 2018. News.lk [Online]. Available at: https://www.news.lk/fetures/item/22082-ior-architecture-must-recognize-intrinsic-role-of-littoral-states-pm [Accessed 3 October 2019].
8Waidyatilake, B. (2019). A New Role for Sri Lanka in Asia’s Changing Geopolitics? Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute. [Online] Available at: https://www.lki.lk/publication/a-new-role-for-sri-lanka-in-asias-changing-geopolitics/ [Accessed 3 October 2019].
9Frost, E. (2019). How to Restore Maritime Connectivity in the Bay of Bengal Region- And How the US Can Help. Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute [Online] Available at: https://www.lki.lk/blog/how-to-restore-maritime-connectivity-in-the-bay-of-bengal-region-and-how-the-us-can-help/ [Accessed 3 October 2019].
10Supra, note 8.


*Nilupul Gunawardena is a Research Fellow at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own views. They are not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.

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