From left: Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry Southeast and Southwest Asian Affairs Department Deputy Director General Noriyuki Shikata, Eastern Province Governor Austin Fernando, Pathfinder Foundation Chairman Bernard Goonetilleke, Indian External Affairs Ministry Policy Planning Joint Secretary Santosh Jha and Carnegie India Director Dr. Raja Mohan
Pic by Waruna Wanniarachchi
Global geopolitical powers should attempt to be apolitical when developing the Trincomalee port and the area around the Bay of Bengal, in order to ensure maritime security for all stakeholders, the Eastern Province Governor advocated last week.
“We cannot divest politics from maritime issues, but I urge the stakeholders to be apolitical,” Austin
Speaking at the first Trincomalee Consultations organised by the Pathfinder Foundation and Carnagie India, he said that the stakeholders should cooperate to ensure internal and external biases and threats in the region are managed through information sharing, joint operations and cooperation with non-governmental organisations.
He added that the development of the region could be blurred if economic and security issues are not addressed, noting how even with infrastructure development in Trincomalee’s rival Hambantota, investment attraction has been slow.
Fernando noted that Indian investments in the oil tank farms would bring visible changes to Trincomalee, while the port and airport developments in the city would ensure smooth logistical interconnectivity between Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmmar.
Delegations from South Asian nations, as well as from Japan were in attendance at the meeting, with an absence of a delegation from China, which is increasingly getting involved with the economy of Sri Lanka and the region.
Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Yi Xianliang has repeatedly said that China should be considered part of South Asia as well, given that it shares borders with many South Asian nations and has contributed towards the development of the region.
The Indian and Japanese delegates in attendance at the Trincomalee Consultations tried to downplay any possible Chinese involvement in the Bay of Bengal.
“The primary responsibility for peace, security and prosperity in the region must rest with those who are residents in the region,” Indian External Affairs Ministry Policy Planning Joint Secretary Santosh Jha said.
However, he noted that support from likeminded partners such as the US and Japan would be encouraging.
“Sitting here in Sri Lanka, just north of major crossroads of global maritime trade, we have to agree that these waters remain relevant not just to countries resident in the region, but others too who may be dependent on peace on these waters for trade and transit,” he added.
Perhaps due to such requirements, China has launched an ambitious plan to construct a string of ports and industrial zones, which would be under Chinese influence, between Middle East and mainland China.
Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry Southeast and Southwest Asian Affairs Department Deputy Director General Noriyuki Shikata too pushed for an Asia Pacific agenda led by Japan and the US, by noting the renewed ties between the two allies following a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe last week.
“I’m certain that Prime Minister Abe and President Trump would be interested in working with us all for ensuring peace and prosperity of the Bay of Bengal,” he said, after denouncing attempts of certain actors to “intimidate, coerce or force” resource ownership and militarize real estate in the Asia Pacific region.
Sri Lanka has allocated the Hambantota port, which is located closest to the international shipping highways, to China, while Trincomalee has been entrusted to Japan and India, with a master plan currently being formulated by Singapore’s Subarna Jurong.
However, Indian media reports recently said that the Indian government is not interested in Sri Lanka’s gift of Trincomalee as a balancing act.
The current government, which came into power with a notion of depending on wide scale economic support from India and the Western World, has now turned towards China, which is using its authoritarian government to realize investments in Sri Lanka.
Carnegie India Director Dr. Raja Mohan said that observers should not be surprised of the geopolitics currently unfolding in Sri Lanka and the Bay of Bengal, since the same stakeholders had been active in the region during World War II, while the Maritime Silk Road had drawn colonial powers to the region in the early modern era.