Sri Lanka; the best stop-over in China’s Maritime Silk Road



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by Chulanee Attanayake


The Silk Road, a trade route originated from China’s Western Han Dynasty and extended across China’s Xinxiang, Central Asia, Africa and Europe, is a historic route of economic and cultural exchange between the East and the West. It signifies China’s trade legacy and its connectivity to the rest of the world. The "silk road" notion was revived in China after the President Xi Jingping’s five-point proposal to build the New Silk Road Economic Belt and after Premier Li Keqiang’s revelation of a New Maritime Silk Road at the 16th ASEAN-China Summit in Brunei. While the "new silk road economic belt" indicates stronger economic ties with Central Asia, "the maritime silk road" seems to focus on ameliorating relations with South and Southeast Asia.


Ancient Silk Road


Prof. G. L. Peiris, Minister of External Affairs, ensured the support of Sri Lanka in China’s maritime Silk Road during his three-day visit to China in February. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunyi, China’s cooperation with Sri Lanka in the maritime Silk Road will range from "[…]maritime connectivity, marine economy, fishery, scientific research and environmental protection of the sea, disaster prevention and reduction, maritime search and rescue and other areas". Sri Lanka’s importance in the "maritime silk road" is relevant to its geographical position in the Indian Ocean. As Robert Kaplan says in his book Monsoon: "The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Indian Ocean is the ocean in the 21st century". The more the importance of the Indian Ocean rises, the more Sri Lanka becomes significant as a focal point. The Indian Ocean contains 1/3 of the 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. It has a large number of narrow chokepoints which are vulnerable for exploitation by terrorists or pirates. Many key sea lines of communications that are crucial to the global economy run through the Strait of Hormuz via the Indian Ocean. Hence, any disruption to the SLOCs will be a heavy blow to the world economy.


Despite its vital importance in the 21st century, the Indian Ocean is the forefront of some of the world’s most difficult security challenges – terrorism, drug trafficking and arms smuggling, piracy, illegal fishing, and human trafficking. It is also susceptible to natural disasters and will be at the forefront of future food and water security as the region is mainly comprised of poorer and underdeveloped countries.


Sri Lanka – The focal point in the Indian Ocean


Being situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has been an active player in the maritime cooperation and marine protection activities in the region. Its maritime cooperation spreads across in different areas such as combating maritime terrorism and piracy, protection of SLOCs and ocean governance.


In the early 1970s, Sri Lanka initiated the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace Proposal. Following the footsteps of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Sri Lanka set up the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC). In the mid-2000s, Sri Lanka acted as the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).


Sri Lanka is still the coordinating secretariat for IOMAC. Since its establishment IOMAC initiated activities to build cooperation in the Indian Ocean region and to protect marine environment. Its activities included marine science, technology and ocean services, protection of living and non-living resources in the Indian Ocean, Ocean law, policy and management and protection of marine environment. It also endorsed a number of proposals on maritime transport and communication.


Hence, Sri Lanka’s geographical location in the region combined with its historical involvement in maritime cooperation makes the island a strategic partner in China’s Maritime Silk Road. Sri Lanka has relatively a cordial relationship with nearly all South Asian neighbors. It is the only country, apart from Maldives, that does not share land borders with other South Asian countries. It has played an intermediary role in inter-state issues and conflicts. If China is to deepen its connection with the countries in the Indian Ocean region, especially in South Asia, Sri Lanka is the most suitable platform. Maritime Connectivity


China’s proposed "maritime silk road" received both encouraging and skeptical responses. 5 China’s rising economic and military power is of major concern to the world. As a result the proposed maritime Silk Road is viewed as yet another step in strengthening its maritime power and dominance. This is mainly due to the lack of cooperation and trust. Sri Lanka can play a significant role in helping China to gain trust from most countries in South Asia. Discussion and dialogue are the main tools in building cooperation and confidence building. Sri Lanka can provide the necessary platform for the Chinese to connect further with Indian Ocean Region countries and cement their relationships. One may argue that this can be done through bilateral meetings. Bilateral meetings happen only between two parties. Hence, the discussion will not be transparent to the other interested parties. It will only result in creating more suspicion. Multilateral dialogue and discussions are open to multiple parties and the outcome is transparent to many. The Galle Dialogue, the current international seminar which is exclusively focusing on maritime discussion can be a platform for such multilateral discussions. Conducting joint maritime exercises and maritime drills can be another tool for building trust and confidence. Exchange programmes for the Navies of the Indian Ocean region in Defence Universities and Colleges can also build people-to-people relationship. Economy Sri Lanka can also act as an Economic Centre for South Asia. The Country’s security situation has improved since the end of the war. The government is creating the required infrastructure – ports, airports and highways to make connectivity easier. Unlike Gwadar in Pakistan where security is extremely volatile, Sri Lanka provides a stable security environment for business and maritime connectivity.


Being blessed with a natural geographical location Sri Lanka can become a maritime transit center in the Indian Ocean. Approximately 300 ships sail daily on the SLOC just south of Sri Lanka.


Colombo port is ranked 29th and expected to rise up in position to 12th and 12th with the augmentation of annual capacity to a total 7.2million TEU to cater to the rapidly increasing demand of services in the international shipping industry. The newly built Hambantota port is located within 10 nautical miles from one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and it is ideally located at the inter section of major international sea trading routes.


Search and rescue


Sri Lanka engages in a countering maritime piracy and in rescue missions. Its Navy has the experience in combating maritime terrorism. Even though there are no reported piracy activities in Sri Lankan waters, there is a number of incidents reported in the Indian Ocean. The Sri Lankan Navy, with its proven combating skills can cooperate with any other Navy in combating piracy and protecting SLOCs in the Indian Ocean.


Further, the Sri Lankan Navy can also provide training for such activities. Though the naval technology is not in par with that of India or any other technologically advanced navy, it has proven strategic skills in this region.


Environment protection to


disaster mitigation and fishery


Indian Ocean facilitates national development through the enormous resources it contains. It is not simply a route for transport, but also a source of protection for landmass, a source of food and a source of economy. Hence, protecting maritime environment is of vital importance for the sustainable survival. Sri Lanka is already engaging in protection of maritime environment through various means. IOMAC brings countries together for protecting marine biodiversity. Additionally, the world’s third largest harbor, Trincomalee, located in the East coast of Sri Lanka, can be developed as a resource hub for marine science and exploration.


Sri Lanka too gains a lot from its involvement in the maritime Silk Road. This would help the island to achieve its objectives of becoming a hub in South Asia. The island is already receiving financial assistance from China to enhance telecommunication, trade, transportation and port services. If Sri Lanka markets itself properly, then it would be only a matter of time of becoming a world class hub. The conference on "Sri Lanka Ports Trade and Logistics" which was concluded recently at Hilton Hotel, Sri Lanka revolved around the need to market Sri Lanka ports globally with a view to achieving a better synergy between Maritime and Logistics operations. Promoting its ports in the world market is an area in which Sri Lanka requires assistance and the Maritime Silk Road of China could be a suitable platform.


Sri Lanka becoming the stop-over in the Indian Ocean region will attract investment from all over the world. It will help the development of the country from every sphere. More over this will make the world to look at Sri Lanka in a different light. Still, Sri Lanka is looked upon as a country which just came out of a conflict, a country which carries the baggage of human rights violations. Becoming a focal point in the Indian Ocean will rebrand Sri Lanka as an economic door-step.


Chulanee Attanayake currently works as a Research Associate at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies and anticipates being an expert on China and its relations with the outside world. Her Postgraduate thesis "China in Sri Lanka" was published by the LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing in March 2013. She holds a Bachelor in Arts from the University of Peradeniya and a Masters in Regional Development and Planning from the University of Colombo.


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