Articles and Commentaries |
March 1, 2024

Interview with H.E. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, President of Sri Lanka, on Indian Ocean

Written By: Shekhar Sinha

Shekhar Sinha: Excellency, thank you very much for giving us time to just pose a few questions. Yesterday, you made a very strong pitch, warning that the intense geopolitical competition in the region has the possibility of spilling over into the Indian Ocean. You also expressed concern over what is happening in West Asia. In your opinion, what are the chances of this spilling over, and can the Indian Ocean region remain a zone of peace in this kind of situation?

Ranil Wickremesinghe: The Indian Ocean must remain a zone of peace. What has happened in my view on the situation in West Asia is because of the American backing of the war in Gaza and the bombing. It is not American’s backing Israel, which everyone expects, and which America does. But because of the US backing for the Gaza war, which has created a lot of prejudice and antagonism against the US, especially amongst the Indian Ocean littorals, where you have the Islamic countries all the way down to Indonesia. The popular reaction is against the US. Now, even if the governments want to maintain close cooperation, it may not be possible for a few years. Remember, few years count a lot in geopolitics. Two years is big in geopolitics, so that’s really going to be an issue for the US. Secondly, as I said, the West tried to break Russia economically, but Russia has succeeded in coming into the Indian Ocean. They already had a good relationship with India, which is continuing and they now have a strong relationship with China. They also have good relations with a lot of other countries in the region, especially with Iran, and they have come into the Bay of Bengal. So, in a way, America has brought Russia in here, and they have created antagonism against themselves. China has been there anyway, and Iran is also active. So, it’s going to be difficult. For the US, especially this year, which is the election year, they can’t be very active. So, two years out with antagonism when the new administration comes or the present administration changes its policy. And two-three years can have a big impact. As Harold Wilson said, “one week is a long time in politics.”

Shekhar Sinha: So that brings me to the next question. How can countries in the IOR, the immediate littorals, keep out of this great power competition?

Ranil Wickremesinghe: I think we have all got to agree on some basics and we’ve worked it. This does not mean that great powers should not be there in the Indian Ocean. Like India, they have to be in the ocean, and they will be there, and they are taking part in exercises like against the Somali pirates. But basically, we must agree on the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and how we control great power rivalry in the area. India and Sri Lanka especially have been very active from the 1940s, from the time of independence. Other countries, like South Africa, I think we can talk to them. You can also talk with countries like the US, China and all others. If we agree, then others have to fall in line. We are not saying don’t be there, don’t have your bases. China has bases. Japan has one base. You can’t say no to them. America has one in Asia, but we have to control what happens.

Shekhar Sinha: Do you recommend that our immediate 4-6 countries who are impacted by this geopolitical competition or likely to be impacted, should have a consensus generating mechanism?

Ranil Wickremesinghe: We should have a consensus generating mechanism, I think, for three things: political issues, trade and for ecology, which is a big issue now.

Shekhar Sinha: Do you envision something like an EU-type of parliament?

Ranil Wickremesinghe: I do not think we need to have an EU-type of model, but there can be understandings and agreements. I can’t see Indian Ocean countries forming a parliament of that nature. It is just too big. I mean basically, we have very big numbers. We have India on one hand, then there’s Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Iran. All are big countries and we are not even looking at the East African coast. But it will be a powerful one by 2050. My idea is going to be powerful. India will have, as I mentioned, a GDP that might even go up by about 8 times. Indonesia will go up, so just imagine if others too also go up four times.

Shekhar Sinha: Sincerely hope so. That brings me to the immediate neighbourhood. Do you see the requirement of a joint HADR type of organisation so that we can come to the assistance of let’s say, Bay of Bengal?

Ranil Wickremesinghe: We should work on it. I think in time to come, Maldives is going to be in trouble. Maybe even Seychelles. I think we have to do it. We have to have these agreements. Basically, one thing that worries me is the melting of the Himalayas and the impact on Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and on the Bay of Bengal.

Shekhar Sinha: What is your view on, let’s say, intertwining of the economies of Indian Ocean countries or maybe the immediate neighbourhood?

Ranil Wickremesinghe: We are for it. That’s why we are upgrading our agreement with India from FTA to the Comprehensive Economic and Technological Agreement. We also want to enhance our agreements with Bangladesh. We are applying to RCEP, so that from India all the way to Japan and Australia will be in one free trade zone. We have to work this out. Of course, India didn’t join RCEP, but I’m sure RCEP would be more than happy to have some agreement with India and Bangladesh. So, let’s say, at least from India, from Mumbai all the way to Tokyo and down to Melbourne, let’s have an agreement.

Shekhar Sinha: That I think is a very workable proposition.

Ranil Wickremesinghe: That’s what we have to do, yes.

Shekhar Sinha: Just one more question related to this. Do you see any specific 2-3 points which the island nations would like India to lend their hand in?
Ranil Wickremesinghe: Others are small island nations. But with us, we are looking at closer integration with India. That’s why we are looking at connectivity, financial connectivity, energy connectivity, land connectivity. So that this is the age in which countries work closely. Bangladesh already has with India, so Sri Lanka too will work on this.

Shekhar Sinha: Last question, if you permit. I know you have to leave shortly for the airport. We, you know, with Sri Lanka have been very good at handling the big power competition or rivalry so to say and you have been at the apex for so many years in various capacities. Do you think that it is now possible for Sri Lanka to have a role in reducing the friction between these 2-3 countries?

Ranil Wickremesinghe: I think those countries have to do it themselves. India and China had a very good relationship. I think there are few outstanding issues. What we can do is to ask them to sort it out. But I think getting into the middle of it, that is not our field. but I think there has been a lot of, I must say in the last 5-10 years I’ve seen a lot of interaction between India and China. We could ask for a few areas, especially the Himalayas that have to be sorted out. We would like to help in any way, if it would make a difference. All of a sudden Asia comes up with two big powers coming in here, but let’s see how we can work it out. It will take a bit of time but we all hope it can be done. And actually, the India Foundation is more than good to start talking on these issues.

Shekhar Sinha: How do you see the Indian Ocean’s role in the larger Indo-Pacific construct?

Ranil Wickremesinghe: The Indian Ocean has been quite different from the Pacific, but we are connected. We have to accept that. It’s a different one, and for thousands of years, it’s sort of evolved. I mean, basically if you look at it in that context, I think we should build on what is there. Now look at India. You had linkages all the way down to South Africa; Indians have gone down there. They are out there in Australia. We have people. It’s easy for us to sit down, I think and talk it over. It’s different in the Pacific Islands as they’re getting together. They haven’t had those cultural relations. And if you look at it basically, the Ramayana has taken you all the way to Vietnam. Theravada Buddhism has also taken us all the way to Vietnam. So, these are type of links we have. And remember, it is from India that Buddhism went to China; the Taoist Temple is one such example, even in Tibet. So, these links are there within Asia and it is very big. It was the Arab traders and the Indians who’ve been trading with each other. Such a unique relationship exists maybe in the Mediterranean, but certainly not between the Atlantic powers or between the Pacific. So, we have something to build on. And we’ve also been part of the British Empire or the Dutch Empire or the French Empire, so we can work on it.

Brief Bios:

  • His Excellency Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President of Sri Lanka.
  • Vice Admiral (Retd.) Shekhar Sinha is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, India Foundation.

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