Economic and security concerns

Trinco port development:


Presentation by EP‚ÄąGovernor Austin Fernando at Cinnamon Grand, Colombo on Feb. 16, 2017

The Trincomalee Port could be developed to support sea connectivity. But if development of the East is to be focussed it is necessary to develop domestic aviation facilities. The government has recently opened the Batticaloa Domestic Airport and hope to expand its service, most likely to reinforce tourism developments. Taking the distance and time taken by foreigners to visit the East from Bandaranaike International Air Port, it will be essential to develop air travel for tourism, as much as sea transportation for trading.The latter will assist development decentralization and sharing of development initiatives to an area that was neglected for long, and it will have positive political fallout too. However, it will click if tourism products with eastern Sri Lankan identity are introduced, because a foreign tourist will not visit the East if there is no novelty offered there.

We considered domestic airport development when I was Secretary Defence for tourism and other purpose at the beginning of the millennium, but did not move on. Even now it is worthwhile to consider development of Hingurakgoda Air Base bringing Polonnaruwa District too to the tourism loop and to develop connectivity from there to Trincomalee. Or, integrated expansion of Sri Lanka Air Force Base at China Bay could be the answer, which requires negotiation with the defence authorities.

In today’s strategic maritime context too, Trincomalee harbour would be ideal for functioning as a commercial hub and as a centre for a Regional Maritime Security Architecture focusing Bay of Bengal. However, this issue is related to international power politics, Conventions and Treaties and Agreement reached between India and Sri Lanka between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President JR Jayawrdenea in 1987, and purportedly discussions held even quite recently.

Right now a Master Plan for development of Trincomalee is undertaken by Subarna Jong Private Limited, basing on shipping, manufacturing and tourism. In fact, the Prime Minister along with officials from the Urban Development Authority, Regional Development Minister and the Navy Commander met a selected group of officials in Trincomalee to initiate action. The plan is said to cover transportation, infrastructure, environmental and implementation proposals. I think that Subarna Jong must have done a fair amount of work on this matter. I expect sharing your deliberations here would assist them for development planning.

In addition, there are written and unwritten practices that have affected our economy and security that is related to the sea around us. It is common to other Bay of Bengal countries too. On the other hand, it is material for maritime safety, disaster response and upgrading of marine environment protection and resource management.

Learning from maritime regions is connected to marine scientific research and hydrographic surveys, which will be important material for present and future generations. I may quote the example of £8 million Monsoon Project by releasing under water robots in Bay of Bengal. The project aims to predict monsoon rainfall by studying ocean processes in the Bay of Bengal. The attention on research may be highlighted at this consultation for the sake of economic, political, security and futuristic humanitarian reasons.

Since this consultation focuses on economic and security activities, I believe it is important to be concerned with how to deal with issues that affect both these areas of operations. Why should not we be concerned when our President is reported to have said according to a Press Trust of India report that "he believed on the basis of the ancient Maritime Silk Road, the Belt and Road Initiative will open up a new era for bilateral ties?" We should not forget that this was the stance taken by Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was the President.It is a positive status.

Security is an important prerequisite for economic development. Economic development and security cannot be divorced entities. We as a country according to economists and certain multilaterals have surpassed the threshold of a developing nation and are focussed through different criteria for international assistance. Yet, our economic development could be blurred if we are not alert to regional security and economic concerns, for which the Bay of Bengal area as a whole could be sometimes vulnerable. Experts here and from neighbouring countries will endorse this view, I am certain.

Therefore, we should be mindful of events that affect maritime security. This is why we are concerned of piracy. Terrorism, has had an impact on Sri Lanka since 1980s, and became a part of the global space too. For us it was through importation of arms, ammunition and all explosives that made Sri Lankans vulnerable.It had costed us economically, politically, socially, historically, psychologically and in many other ways. Our experiences with maritime terrorism had affected our economy for decades and though we have essentially got over it by now, we cannot lie low or be lethargic.

Irrespectively, the most significant development of the last few decades was the explosive growth in global maritime trade as stated earlier, consequent to larger globalization,technical and technological developments, enhanced international trading instruments and other mechanisms.We hear there are several in the pipeline with Singapore, India and China.

Increasing the importance of the seas is manifold. For example, China launched the MSR and the Belt and Road Initiative. Although China has long claimed that its interests in the Indian Ocean region are purely economic, it’s openly commented that the MSR could have a major impact on the strategic balance in the Bay.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2014 obtained the green light from Sri Lanka and Maldives for the MSR, enhancing competing influence in the region. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi considered launching a new initiative designed to compete with China’s MSR, known as Project Mausam. This shows the existence and importance of competing counter mechanisms at sea. It is the very reason that countries should use this dynamism for competition for the greater good rather than to be monopolistic for selfish gains. This could happen only by greater cooperation in the region. I believe this Consultation will approach this factor too.

These are major international issues. Next, coming to practical operations I want to be careful in using words when I mention what is called "illegal fishing" since there are different interpretations. For example, our Sri Lankan fishermen in the North and East and the South Indian fishermen do not see eye to eye on this issue. Our complaint had been that bottom trawling and other nasty systems destroy our ocean resources. Many dialogues we have had, i.e. political or occupational or diplomatic,had been photo opportunities than finalizing a solution. They mostly culminated with blame games. Fishing issues could be similar with Chinese or any others’ fishing trawler operators, who may be exploiting valuable oceanic resources, sometimes by being bossy and rough!Of course, the reverse also is heard against our authorities. May be all these are conventional international behaviour games!

Another area had been drug smuggling from various sources brought through normal ships, giving the impression that Sri Lanka is the "Asian Hub" for drug transfers. Though we may not be the worst in the region we possess a part of the human smuggling problem, which has affected distant countries like Australia..

Though oil spills are not the often heard issue in the media,marine pollution, unsafe/sub-standard shipping etc . have been concerns for us. Thinking of maritime natural hazards, though we are not that prone to cyclones or tsunamis, such events have not been sympathetic when we were hit as we saw in 1978 with a cyclone and in the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, which affected many others in the region.

Whether it is for economic viability or security concerns we have to be concerned of the existing political influences and realities. Though one may comment that we should not talk politics, I do not think we could divorce politics with maritime related development and security. Therefore, without harping on this very sensitive subject I may request the participants to be apolitical, as far as possible.

Towards positive result achievement we may have to find ways to supplement bilateralism with multilateral approach to development, security cooperation and diplomacy. These are not easy solutions due to internal and external biases and threats. Perhaps, intra-government/intra-national information sharing (intra- department, as well as government and private institutions), enhancement of Track 1 (State-State) intelligence-sharing, joint exercises (military-military relations), joint patrols etc. may assist. In addition, relations building between State with non-State actors, Track 2 (non-State with non-State) cooperation have to be developed. For example,state-of-the-art scanners at ports could ensure safe/secure cargo passage with minimal delays at minimal cost. Thus, a shift from a current, as I see "defence community" to a projected "networked security community" may be the answer. Added inputs could be development of state-of-the-art ports to match future potential enhancement, as well threats that may emerge, infrastructure building, automation, worker re-training, cultural shift at strategic and operational management and worker levels, competitive tariffs, incentives, value-added services. 

Before I conclude let me mention that my expressed views need not necessarily be that of Sri Lankan Government or any political authority.If there were similarities it is coincidence and if not everything is mine. However, I believe that these background scenarios may be of use to develop relations, institutions, and dynamic systems in maritime development and security status.


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