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Mr. AsangaAbeygoonasekera Speaks at the First International Seminar on South Asia Development

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Mr. AsangaAbeygoonasekera, the Executive Director of the LakshmanKadirgamar institute was invited to speak at the 1st International Seminar on South Asia Development, organized by Xinhua News Agency Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau. The seminar took take place in Hong Kong on the 9th June 2014. The aim of this seminar was to open up discussion, critical reflection and analysis about political, social and economic development across the region.

Speaking on the topic “Sri Lanka; the Center of Maritime Silk Road” he said that Sri Lanka can be a key player in the Maritime Silk Road for it enjoys a strategically important geographical location in the Indian Ocean Region. He pointed three areas, namely trade, combatting terrorism and piracy, and confidence building and cooperation. Further, the historical role played by the island in the ancient Silk Road was brought to the notice of the audience.

Many distinguished scholars, diplomats and government officers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh ,Maldives ,Nepal ,Sri Lanka and China participated in the Seminar.

The Full text of the Speech made by Mr. Abeygoonasekara is as follows:

Sri Lanka; the Center of Maritime Silk Road

Mr. JU Mengjun President Xinhua News Agency,Distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman,

First let me thank Xinhua News Agency for your kind invitation for the first International seminar on South Asia Development organized by Asia Pacific Region Bureau of Xinhua News Agency. While the conference is held in the "Pearl of the Orient" Hong Kong, I think it was appropriate to invite a panelist from the "Pearl of the Indian Ocean" Sri Lanka.

Few hours ago there was a terrorist attack to the international airport in Karachi, my sympathy to the victims and family members. Years ago we had an attack to our international airport in Colombo and we understand the pain of terrorism well after combating terrorism for three decades.

The conference focus on political, economic and social development and trends in South Asia and future outlook of the region. Maritime Silk Road( MSR ) is a sleeping Giant which will wake up and connect three continents Asia,Europe& Africa with trade and culture. South Asia and China with its 2.8b population with its economic growth for the last decade is significant,trade between China and South Asia from $35b in 2006 to $100b in 2013. Two days ago I spoke at the US Fulbright Center in Colombo on the topic "Is Asia rising?". Asian countries has shown many positive indicators during a difficult turbulent world economy.

While the Sri Lankan business delegation leaves from Kungming after participating for the China South Asia Expo several days ago, I am speaking on a topic to improve future trade between China and Sri Lanka today, which is the 21st century maritime Silk Road( MSR). Few months ago I was in Bahrain with a Young Global Leaders program and even there MSR was discussed by Dr.JarmoKotilaine who is a Chief Economist.

“Silk Road”, which is a centuries-old concept, is seen revived recently with the Chinese leaders’ emphasis on revival of the ancient Silk Road via a “new silk road economic belt” and “the maritime silk road”. Sri Lanka, having elevated its relationship with China into a “strategic partnership” during the visit of HE President MahindaRajapaksa in May 2013, readily announced its support to the proposed Maritime Silk Road. Our Foreign Minister and the Chairman of our Think Tank, Hon.Prof. G.L. Peiris informed this during his visit to China in February this year. We are the first country to back China’s initiative in reviving the 21st century maritime Silk Road.

The “Silk Road” concept fascinates us as a historic route of economic and cultural exchange. It embodies the spirit of peace, cooperation, openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning and hard work. Having been part of the ancient silk road and having situated in a strategic location in the maritime route Sri Lanka can play a central role.  

Sri Lanka’s relations with China date back to several centuries. Records on Han dynasty’s missions which reached several south Asian countries including Sri Lanka mark as the earliest documented evidence on Sino-Sri Lanka relationship.

A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, an account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Hien of his travels in India and Ceylon in search of Buddhist Books of Discipline explains that the Monk has visited Sri Lanka between 399 and 414. Vol. 54 of Jin Book and Liang Book of Chinese history state, the King of Sihaladvipa, having heard of Emperor Xiaowu in Eastern Jin Dynasty’s (373-396) believe in Buddhism, sent a monk named Dharma to bring a Jade Buddha Statute to capital of Jin (Nanjing) through 10 years voyage on ocean.

The strategic position of the island in the Indian Ocean made it a hub for ancient trade. Sri Lanka was one of the major ports in the Indian Ocean. It had been one of the prominent places of bartering goods and the main entry port of the East to West sea route of Indian Ocean.

Our maritime heritage holds a lesson of peaceful cooperation in trade and cultural exchanges. Sri Lanka’s rich natural harbours were connected to inland rivers and facilitated trade and transport. As a result, some of the ports became internationally famous ports even back then.

Archaeological evidences prove that the China and Sri Lanka had established trade relations during the period of ancient Silk Road. Chinese ceramic remains, coins and Chinese inscriptions found in some of the ancient ports provide valuable information and acceptable proof of evidence that there had been trade relations between Sri Lanka and China beyond Christian era.

Sri Lanka’s support to China’s Maritime Silk Road does not come as a surprise for several reason.

Apart from its historical ties, China and Sri Lanka has continued to be steadfast friends since the island gained independence from the colonial rule. Our President HE MahindaRajapaksa calls China to be Sri Lanka’s “true and tested friend”. Two countries have stood for each other at difficult times. Sri Lanka was one of the first non-communist countries to recognize the communist China. Sri Lanka supported China’s entrance to the United Nations.

China has always been supportive of Sri Lanka’s decisions and has always respected the island’s sovereignty. When Sri Lanka was highly criticized after the end of war calling for alleged human rights violations, and when some of the Sri Lanka’s long-term donors pulled out without supporting post-conflict rebuilding, it is China who came to Sri Lanka’s rescue. Today, China is Sri Lanka’s largest donor providing financial and technical support for development of infrastructure, trade and commerce.

When China is proposing a cooperative mechanism to build the 21st century maritime Silk Road for joint development, Sri Lanka is ready to play a central role due to geographical positioning at the center of the Indian Ocean.

Unarguably, Sri Lanka can be a key player in the Maritime Silk Road for it enjoys a strategically important geographical location in the Indian Ocean Region. Professor Hash V. Pant of Kings College, London who extensively write on the geopolitics in the Indian Ocean, wrote an article to a Sri Lankan newspaper Ceylon Today in September 2012 which said that Colombo is the key to dominating the Indian Ocean. According to his own words “Colombo matters because the Indian Ocean matters. The ‘great game’ of this century will be played on the waters of the Indian Ocean”.

The Indian Ocean is perceived by many as the “emerging centre of gravity in the strategic world”. American Strategist Robert Kaplan says in his book “Monsoon-the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power” that “it is in this region the interests and influence of India, China and the United States are beginning to overlap and intersect. It is here the 21st century’s global power dynamics will be revealed”.

The significance of the Indian Ocean is relevant due to several factors. The region contains 1/3 of world’s population, 25% of the land mass, and 40% of the world’s oil and gas reserves. It is the border to the world’s fastest growing region, Asia. The activities in the Indian Ocean region range from extensive trade, energy transfers, to political turbulences, threats from piracy, terrorism and transnational crime. It has 30 straits and channels in and adjoining the Indian Ocean which are vulnerable for exploitation by terrorists and pirates. The most important trade routes that are crucial to the global economy, connecting the Middle East with Europe, East Asia, Africa and the United States pass through this region. It provides predominant outlet for oil from the Persian Gulf to various destinations all over the world. According to estimations 40% of the world’s offshore oil production comes from the Indian Ocean.

With a history of initiation and active cooperation in maritime activities Sri Lanka has the ability to play a vital and centralized role in promoting China’s maritime Silk Road.

Our maritime cooperation is spread across in a wide spectrum ranging from combating maritime terrorism and piracy, protection of Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) and ocean governance. The island nation accounts for an ocean regime of 12nm of territorial sea and 200nm of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Our search and rescue region is nearly 27 times of our landmass.

Since independence, my country has played an important role in the regional initiatives on the Indian Ocean. We initiated the Indian Ocean Peace Proposal in the early 1970s. We set up Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) following the footsteps of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). We are still the coordinating secretariat for IOMAC. In the mid-2000s Sri Lanka acted as the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).

Since the establishment of IOMAC, Sri Lanka has initiated activities to build cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region. IOMAC engages in activities related to marine science, protection of Indian Ocean resources, ocean law, policy and management and protection of marine environment.

At this historical juncture where China is initiating to build 21st century Maritime Silk Road for greater cooperation and joint development, Sri Lanka can make its contribution in three important areas.

1.         Trade

Our President MahindaRajapaksa has proposed to make Sri Lanka a maritime hub. A maritime hub is a central location with a strategic importance for international trade and transport. It has to be equipped with maritime infrastructure, technologies to facilitate ports, shipping, value-added logistics, dock-yards. The present government, exploring the island’s strategic location at the center of East-West shipping route, has initiated a plan to be completed by 2020 for development, improvement and promotion of the port sector.

A hub such as this, of which sea ports are well connected with main shipping routes, air connectivity is built up with other logistic centres in the world, inland road and rail connectivity are developed, access to energy sources and supportive infrastructure developments are put in place, can bolster the economic development.

Our government aspires to develop Sri Lanka as a global logistic hub which delivers world class services to port users and stakeholders. On-going port development projects, which are funded by the Chinese government, will ensure the country as a maritime hub, handling 200 million tonnage of cargo handling, enjoying a US$ one billion in revenue. Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA) has developed operational and marketing strategies, financial objectives and safety and security plans to achieve the growth targets. SLPA is proposing to make Colombo Port and Hambantota port as free ports as means of attracting additional traffic and encouraging development of intermediary trade to increase opportunities for transaction with neighbouring countries.

2.         Combating terrorism & Security

Terrorism is one of the biggest threats to all Nations. Few weeks ago there was a bomb attack in Urumqi China and this is everywhere, pain of one Nation should be pain of another we are all interconnected and should fight terrorism together. Without a secure world we cant talk of economic prosperity, Sri Lankan people understand this very well because of the three decade war we fought against the terrorist organization the LTTE who use to explode bombs many times and assassinate innocent people. Our valiant armed force won the war against terror with the assistance from many friendly Nations to Sri Lanka including China. Our military has the expertise to fight terror and we could help the world to combat ruthless terrorist that target innocent people. To combat terrorism collectively among MSR nations is important.

With the increasing piracy attacks and other terrorist activities in the region free passage in the Indian Ocean is threatened. Given the importance of the SLOC running along in the region, freedom and safety of the navigation in the Indian Ocean is a crucial factor in global economy. Sri Lanka can be an active partner in protecting SLOCs and maintaining peace and stability of the Indian Ocean through carrying out maritime security cooperation with the navies of various countries. Sri Lanka can share its expertise in combating terrorism with the others in the region. Sri Lanka can engage in joint anti-piracy activities.

 

Vice Admiral Su Zhiqian, commander of the East China Sea Fleet under the Navy of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), stated in his speech at the Galle Dialogue 2012 that the Chinese Navy is seeking to establish a maritime security ‘code of conduct’ with the other navies in the region in order to maintain peace and stability of the Indian Ocean region. Having firsthand experience on the importance of peace and stability, Sri Lanka can be an active partner in this initiative.

3.         Confidence Building and Cooperation

Another area Sri Lanka can provide its support is in confidence building and developing cooperation among the South Asian neighbours. Being an island nation isolated from the land borders of other countries in the region, Sri Lanka has been able to maintain a relatively cordial relationship with almost all the South Asian neighbours. If China to realize its dream of 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, it is vital to develop cordial and friendly relationship with the member states of the Indian Ocean Region.

China’s proposal of the Maritime Silk Road has already raised concerns in the international arena. International Political analysts and geo-strategists view this as another attempt of China’s projection of great maritime power. They say that this is an attempt to counter to “string of pearls” strategy China was accused of pursuing and that an effort to counter regional anxieties about its fast-expanding naval presence.

These speculations are the results of lack of trust and confidence among the countries both in China’s immediate neighbourhood and distant neighbourhood. Since Sri Lanka has played the role of a neutral negotiator in the history during Sino-Indian conflict, today it can also play the role to initiate multi-pronged approach to build trust and confidence between the countries through multi-lateral dialogue and discussion.

Benefits to the Rest of the World

Whatever criticisms are made of the maritime silk road, according to my view, this is a platform to share the development China has achieved over the past few decades. According to the President Xi Jingping the Maritime Silk Road aims to seize the opportunity for further opening up of China and to work with neighbouring countries to speed up the development of Asia.

Silk Road has historically represented unity among nations and a commitment for cooperation. It opens wide opportunity for greater connectivity among East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, West Asia and the rest of the world. The revival of the Silk Road will help developing and improving the supply chain, industry chain and value chain. It will bring the regional cooperation to a higher level.

The initiative calls to boost infrastructure development and structural innovation. The greater cooperation will improve business environment of the region and will facilitate orderly and unimpeded flow of production. This initiative will also help technological and knowledge transfer.

Conclusion

The Blue Book of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released in June 2013 proposed that China should play a more proactive role in affairs in the Indian Ocean region to address the changing dynamics of international relations. It seems that the revival of the ancient “Maritime Silk Road” is an attempt to address the said vacuum.

The Blue book also suggests China to deepen its economic ties with the nations in the IOR. Pointing out the importance of the cooperation of China, the US and India, it highlights that if China fails to do so it will result in making the Indian Ocean as an ocean of conflict and trouble.

China strongly believes that it requires a peaceful international environment to achieve modernization for its people. To secure a peaceful international environment, China needs to engage and cooperate with the rest of the world.

As you know one billion is hungry and another billion is obese, a billion goto bed without food or better living condition, we have rising inequality and are we ready for a world of 9 billion people in several years. We need to create a peaceful world with economic prosperity to East and the West, a positive sum game should be played by our world leaders and I hope MSR will add value to bring this change. Lets improve the points of intersection among countries, lets not move towards nationalism or arrogance which will move away from the MSR vision. MSR should strengthen ties between all Continents and promote global trade.

Let me end my presentation with a quotation from Foreign Minister Wang Yi, given in his speech “New Europe: China’s Development Makes for a Better World”.

“Nearly one year into office by the current Chinese government, China, which has enjoyed stability and steady progress, is attracting increasing attention from around the world. Many are eager to see what China will bring to the world. My answer: a better China will make for a better world.”

Thank You!

 

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