We're Live Bangla Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Lankan President Wickremesinghe finds no basis for the Indo-Pacific concept

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe Gave A Wide-ranging Interview To Nitin A.Gokhale, Editor-in-Chief Of The New Delhi-based StratNews Global. Here Are Some Takeaways From The Interview.


Concept of Indo-Pacific is Unrealistic

The Sri Lankan President said that the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” is unrealistic and unwieldy because the Indian Ocean is different from the Pacific Ocean with each ocean facing its own distinct issues.

“In the Pacific, the tension takes place in the ocean between Japan, Taiwan and up to Vietnam. In the Indian Ocean there is not much tension that way. Tension is in the Himalayas where three nuclear powers meet. And then in the Horn of Africa where there is a struggle going on. It is completely different to the Pacific. So our view is treating this separately. We are not the same.”

“In the Indian Ocean we have worked together from time immemorial. China has been coming to the Indian Ocean and ships from Arabia and India has been going to China. So the influence of both has spread. That is how we have Indo-China. When we talk about the Indo-Pacific, we accept the reality that there are two different systems.”

Lanka’s Critical Role in Connectivity

Sri Lanka has a big role to play in connectivity, Wickremesinghe said.

“If you look at it strategically, the two channels 8 and 9 are important for us as much as it is important to India, because all the shipping must go through that. But we also have a separate access through Trincomalee into the Bay of Bengal. We can be a logistics point as there is no logistic center in the Indian Ocean. Between Dubai and Singapore there is a vacuum. That is itself useful because it can service part of the Bay of Bengal and also India. That is why we feel that logistics is the key. And we will develop from there.”

China’s BRI is Commercial

“We consider the Belt and the Road Initiative as commercial. If it has defense or military implications, we won’t be there. China is expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean. For India, it is a question of how fast it is growing. That is an internal issue. Our interest in China is commercial and economics. We can’t go to war with anyone. We want freedom of navigation. That is where we are. We have got to work the relationship out. India is working its relationship out with the US while having a relationship with Russia!”

Re-classification of vessels calling at Lankan ports

On the controversial visit of the Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang 5 to Hambantota port in August, which raised the hackles in New Delhi, the Lankan President said: “Now we are looking at re-classifying civilian ships – non-military ships. The problem is that any non-military ship can be used for military purposes. We are looking at working out a new system. So we are looking at reclassification. We need to work that out. It is not easy. What we have told India is that we will not do anything to jeopardize the security of India. And so far, Sri Lanka had not done that. And we are very careful.”

Offering Trincomalee port to India for Development 

Further to his earlier comment that the Hambantota port is being unfairly used as a “punching bag” by elements critical of Sri Lanka, Wickremesinghe said that his government would offer the Trincomalee port to India for development.

“We are getting hammered for Hambantota directly and indirectly! Before all this in 2003, I agreed with Prime Minister Vajpayee, that they (India) should come and develop Trincomalee. Under the letters of exchange in the 87 agreement (India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987) we had to first talk to India about the oil tanks. So I spoke to Prime Minister Vajpayee and he said yes, they are interested and said that we will work something out. Then I said why don’t we look at the Trincomalee Port itself? But then we went out of power and nothing happened. So even in 2015 that was the idea. We are the ones who asked for a power station. But President Rajapaksa had allowed it to be moved to Sampur from where we had originally selected. So this has been going on. We are going to develop Trincomalee. It is a question of when and how.  Hambantota is important and will service the whole of the Bay of Bengal.”

Talks with China after Communist Party Congress 

On the pressing issue of Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring, President Wickremesinghe said that his government will be talking to China after the Chinese Communist Party Congress.

“We have already started some talks with India, but at a lower level. We are just starting the talks with China. We’ll have to go to a higher level, but we have to see whether we should do it before the (Communist) party conference or after. Since we are just starting the talks it may have to be just after the conference. But we will first talk with Japan then we will have a discussion with India.”

Joint Fishing in Palk Strait a Non-starter

On the vexed issue of Indian poachers in North Sri Lankan waters, the Lankan President said that the proposal for joint fishing in the Palk Strait will not work as North Lankan fishermen want their territory for themselves.

“I don’t think the Northern fishermen will accept it. They want their fishing zones to be theirs. When I was Prime Minister it was agreed that given two to three years the Indian fishermen will be persuaded to go for deep sea trawling. Now that has not taken place. It is not a question of the Sri Lankan Coastguard. Some of these people will take matters into their own hands. In 2002 or 2003, the LTTE came and caught them and even shot some of them. We don’t want that to happen. If Sri Lankan fishermen feel that the Indian fishermen are coming further and further into the area, there will be a natural pushback. We of course have been having talks for a long time. We have to come to some agreement because this is the livelihood of the Northern fishermen.”

Sri Lanka’s Role in Tamil Nadu’s Development

The development of the Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka through renewable energy programs and the port of Trincomalee will spur Tamil Nadu’s growth, the Lankan President said.

“It will also depend on how Tamil Nadu develops. All industrialization is in the North of Tamil Nadu. If you want to overtake Maharashtra, you (the people of Tamil Nadu) have to come down. Then again, we can be the ports for Southern Tamil Nadu. What you need is a good ferry service. It is a win-win situation if Tamil Nadu pushes down (links up with Sri Lanka for commercial purposes).”

Silence on Devolution and Pruning Presidential Powers

Wickremesinghe evaded giving an answer to a question on implementing devolution of power to the Tamil provinces as per the 13 Amendment of the constitution. He evaded a question on pruning of the powers of the Executive Presidency. He wanted the electoral system to be changed first so that better people come to parliament.

“As for the 13th Amendment, we have been talking with the Tamil parties and we can come to some arrangement. On the President’s powers being diluted, for me the most important issue outside the 13th Amendment is the electoral system. All the corruption comes out of that. Unless you tackle the election system first, you will not have a good Government. You have this preference (vote) system in which you are fighting your own (party) candidates. The cost of the election is about four times what it should be. And so you are dependent on others to help you. We need the PR (Proportional Representation) system. The question is, do we want a list system without a preference system or whether we have the dual system. I think we have to sort that out. There is a question about the quality of the candidates, the people who are selected to Parliament. This is the core issue. We are ducking that because all the parties are coalitions and the smaller parties want one system and the larger parties want another. But the country does not want something else. This is the main issue. I think once you address that, then with a new Parliament selected accordingly, we can decide on the Presidential System also.”

Geopolitics Will Determine Security Situation

On what the world will be in the next five years, Wickremesinghe said that it will depend on geopolitical moves of the key powers.

“There is a big question mark over the next five years. I don’t think the big challenges are going to come in the next five years. Unless we force it upon ourselves. Like what happened in Ukraine. Now another big challenge is holding the Commonwealth together. Can Britain and the others hold it together or will it disappear? That will create another vacuum. At least a value system was being transferred by the Commonwealth. So it is an uncertain situation. If you look at China, the Chinese military won’t be in a position to take on the US military, or be a threat for at least another 15 years. So are you trying to accelerate it and cause a conflict? Like what happened in Ukraine, there  could be miscalculations on both sides. That has led to the present situation. No one can get out of it. It has become a trap.”

“There are new politicians appealing to different segments of the electorate, who will also find it difficult to hold it, the disappearance of traditional parties, replacement with new parties of different interest.”

In sum, according to the Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, it is quite a grim scenario full of imponderables.