November 1, 2021

An Interview with Shri Ranil Wickremesinghe, Former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

Written By: Nitin Gokhale

Nitin Gokhale

Sri Lanka’s geographical position in the Indo Pacific is crucially located between two well established logistics hubs—Dubai and Singapore. What role can Sri Lanka play to bring in more trade and greater exchange of flow of goods in the region? Besides these two main hubs, do you foresee Sri Lanka to be a good logistics hub?

Ranil Wickremesinghe

Singapore is a good logistic hub, lying between the Indian Ocean and between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Dubai’s location on the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula on the coast of the Persian Gulf, makes it an ideal major global transport hub for passengers and cargo. Sri Lanka has always been one of the trading centres of the Indian Ocean, even in earlier times when there was a highly developed trading system. Today, the Indian Ocean is the least integrated trading region in the world. So facilitating integration of trade in the region is one of the challenges for Sri Lanka. We also need to work on the proposition of being the gateway to India and onto the Bay of Bengal. The Bay of Bengal is developing rapidly and has become a region of great interest. We therefore, need to coordinate our shipping policies with that of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

We also have to see how we can go forward with some form of economic cooperation and trade integration. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is aimed at strengthening regional cooperation but has not so far been able to bring about trade integration. This is an issue which we have to look into, especially as there are two big ongoing projects on the side of the Western Indian Ocean. One of these is the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a multi-mode network of ship, rail, and road route for moving freight between India, Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe. The other is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, that is linking Central Asia to the Xinjiang province of China and also to the heart of Russia and onto Turkey.

There is also a lot of potential in East Africa. By 2050, the population in the region between Bangladesh and East Africa, will be equal to that of India, which will make this region bigger than the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) grouping. It is important that we start looking outside our national framework towards a cooperative set up. It would be appropriate to discuss a timeframe, which could perhaps be ten years, for trade integration to take place in specific sectors. We can move slower than the RCEP but nevertheless some move has to take place. Here, India can take the lead to be the engine of growth. This big region can then interact with RCEP and perhaps later, move on to interacting with the European Union (EU).

Nitin Gokhale

That is a good suggestion, but would require very good relations between India and Sri Lanka.Where do you see the relationship between India and Sri Lanka currently and what should be done to improve it?

Ranil Wickremesinghe

We have had ups and downs in our relationship. We had challenges when the LTTE came in, we have them now and we had them in 2014. But we also had very good relationships from about mid-1990s till about 2005—and we worked a lot of these out in 2015. The first issue—and let us be frank about it—was the Belt and Road Initiative of China. We had to accept the fact that we had two different views, but nevertheless, that does not preclude us from working together, because we had one issue on which we both agree—that Sri Lanka should not be a threat to India and India should not be a threat to Sri Lanka. Now, if we accept that, then we can resolve our differences on trade, economy, culture and on any other issue.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Sri Lanka and India need greater integration in trade. For that, we need to integrate our ports. We could link the Colombo and Trincomalee ports with the Indian system and we were working towards that end. We worked on Colombo harbour on the East terminal, on getting the oil tanks and aiming at the Bay of Bengal, which means that there were so many projects that we had jointly put together, and also with Japan, as India came in with Japan. We need to continue working towards that end.

I had always asked India to give us a terminal in return, which would have been very good at some stage as we had two LNG plants and the floating terminal. We also had the oil tanks issue which we should conclude quickly. From our side, we can explain the issue to the trade unions and see that their concerns are taken into account. Similarly, we were looking at development of the Mattala airport and the third section of the central expressway. At that time, the USA came in with a proposal from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and one part of it was to study the road from Kurunegala to Trincomalee, to look at the possibilities of having industrial estates.  Sri Lanka rejected that package which was worth over US $2 billion, which perhaps could have been beneficial for us. Such like issues need to be resolved in our quest towards further integration. India and Sri Lanka already have a Free Trade Agreement, the ISFTA, which was signed in December 1998. As a step forward, we can now look into the possibility of the five southern states of India, working together with Sri Lanka as one economic grouping.

We must remember that Indo-Sri Lanka relations are not merely dependent on government-to-government relations. It is a heritage relationship as we have a common origin, with strong bonds in Buddhism, Pali and Sanskrit. We have similar Rahu Kalaya (inauspicious timings). While the sacred Buddha shrine is in Bodh Gaya in India, we have the southernmost sacred Hindu Shrine in Koneswaram in Trincomalee. We listen to the melodious voice of Lata Mangeshwar and you listen to the Sri Lankan singer, Yohani. These are cultural bonds which unite us and we should further strengthen them.

Nitin Gokhale

While civilisational and cultural ties do bind us together, another factor that is binding India and Sri Lanka as also Maldives together, are the common maritime security mechanisms. What is your view about SAARC and BIMSTEC, the latter in reality being SAARC minus Pakistan? Do you think SAARC and BIMSTEC are good platforms to improve relations in the region?

Ranil Wickremesinghe

We need the trilateral agreement, and we also need SAARC and BIMSTEC. SAARC is the only organisation for South Asian. If we create a vacuum, then someone else will come and fill it. Both India and Pakistan were the founder members of SAARC, so, regardless of the difficulties in the relationship, we have to go along with the organisation. The problem in SAARC, as I foresee it, is with Afghanistan. If you are going to persecute people of other religions, or of different Muslim sects, and if people do not have freedom and are going to be shot on the streets, that is going to create a problem for us. With respect to Pakistan, while it does have a problem with some other countries, nevertheless, we should start moving at the official level and the ministerial level in an attempt to resolve all issues. BIMSTEC gives us a reach to the Bay of Bengal and maybe, at some later stage, to some maritime issues in the region. So, it is essential that we get this. At the moment, we have only the Trilateral Security Arrangement.

Nitin Gokhale

The elephant in the room is China. The shadow of China is very long and very thick in the region. How does Sri Lanka balance this and how does India make sure that China does not overwhelm its relations with its neighbours, especially Sri Lanka?

Ranil Wickremesinghe

Sri Lanka has had long ties with China, just as India has had, which go back to the times that Buddhism spread from India to China and Sri Lanka. We have also had trading relations with China since earlier times. Post-independence, it was Prime Minister Nehru himself who pushed forward the cause of China. Sri Lanka had a trade pact with China in 1952, when the latter agreed to export rice to Sri Lanka in exchange for rubber. Since then, our relationship has grown and we have become close to each other. That is one thing we both have to acknowledge. But we have not allowed the Chinese relationship in any way to impact on the Indian relationship. We have to accept the fact that we may have different views, but we also know that India has a specific role to play in the Indian Ocean. India is the largest country – politically, economically, militarily and population wise. We have accepted Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). Hence, if China comes in and they want to have an economic corridor, we can handle that without coming into any conflict with India. We have the Belt and Road Initiative on one side, with multiple economic projects. On the other hand, if we can have sub regional cooperation with the five Indian coastal states as well, that too should be all right. Our relations with India are not just country to country relations, but relations with people who have the same origins.

Nitin Gokhale Moving away from Indian Ocean and the bilateral relations, how do you see Sri Lanka responding to the increasing American footprints in the Indo-Pacific, the recent AUKUS agreement, and the traction QUAD has now got?

Ranil Wickremesinghe

In the beginning of the last century, America extended their manifest destiny out into the Pacific, with Hawaii and Philippines. Then, after World War II, USA consolidated firstly by bringing Hawaii and Alaska as two States in the American Union and secondly, through the San Francisco system, brought Japan in. Later, with the Nixon visit to Beijing, the ice between the two countries was broken. We have to remember that China’s economy was built up by America.

The Asia-Pacific construct gave way to the Indo-Pacific, in the context of the US-China rivalry, with the US reframing the arrangement by pushing it into the Indian Ocean. But when we look at the QUAD, we are still wondering what exactly it stands for. The idea originated from the then Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s speech at the Indian Parliament and received traction later with the speech of Indian Prime Minister Modi at Shangri La. Subsequently, President Trump gave his vision of the Indo-Pacific and now we see a reframing of the same. So there has to be some agreement on what exactly the QUAD is to be.

If you take the last QUAD summit meeting in Washington, it talks about an inclusive Indian Ocean, which is basically what the Japanese and the Indians have been pushing for. AUKUS is a military alliance and as a military, they talk of working with the partners. We are not enthused with any military alliance in Indian Ocean, so there is very lukewarm response in Asia for AUKUS. I am pressing hard for the freedom of navigation and undersea cables in the Indian Ocean. That will take 50 percent of the problem out, but I think AUKUS is going to be a problem. And I don’t know how India is going to manage it.

Nitin Gokhale: I think that’s where the convergence between India and Sri Lanka will come in. Thank You.

Brief Bios:

*Shri Ranil Wickremesinghe is the Former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

*Shri Nitin Gokhale is the Founder of BharatShakti.in and Strat News Global

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