ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s freedom of navigation initiative is to create a rules based mechanism where Indian Ocean littoral states and major users can discuss and resolve issues amid a changing world order, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said.
"Sri Lanka’s initiative on the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean is primarily aimed at maintaining a rules-based order," Prime Minister Wickremesinge said in Ha Noi, Vietnam.
"Our aim is not to draft a new code but initiate a process."
Wickremesinghe was addressing the third Indian Ocean Conference, which is backed by India and has Sri Lanka, Singapore and Bangladesh.
"China’s economic expansion has led to a specific focus on the Indian Ocean," Wickremesinghe said.
"The Indian Ocean sea routes are vital to the economic interests of China.
"The USA has been in the Indian Ocean in Diego Garcia and has been a key stakeholder.
"A free and open Indian Ocean is vital to Japan and its economy. India is the territorial power, with a direct stake in the Indian Ocean."
The US and Japan is pushing for free and open navigation in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region which runs from the US coast to India.
China is pushing a Belt and Road initiative. Wickremesinghe says small states bordering the Indian Ocean do not want world powers to dominated them.
"Security and economic challenges arise from both the complementary and competing interests of these large stakeholders as they interact with each other in the Indian Ocean region," he said.
"Littoral states especially the smaller states, oppose domination of the Indian Ocean by the Great Powers.
"Such states have an important role to play in managing great power competition."
Wickremesinghe said the building of military bases by great and middle powers was taking place in the Indo Pacific region.
Wickremesinghe said existing mechanism do not have the capacity to deal with current developments.
Analysts have also said there is a power vacuum with US President Donald Trump taking a nationalist line which is inward looking.
Meanwhile Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka has in the past played a role in developing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Sri Lanka planned to host a track 1.5 conference in Colombo and also a diplomatic conference in 2019 in a bid to speed up the initiative.
"Historical events have demonstrated that Sri Lanka’s location can impact the security not only of the Indian Ocean but also other areas such as South East Asia, the Middle East and even the Pacific," he said.
Sri Lanka has leased a port to China for joint management in Hambantota and has said it will only be used for commercial activities.