“Sri Lanka and its place in the world” - Address by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe: 3rd October 2016: Wellington, New Zealand

“Sri Lanka and its place in the world” – Address by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe: 3rd October 2016: Wellington, New Zealand




“Sri Lanka and its place in the world”

 Address by Hon Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

3rd October 2016: Wellington, New Zealand


First let me express my sincere appreciation to the organizers  of this event for the invitation extended to me.  I am concluding my visit to New Zealand with this talk.  I have noted the objective of the Institute is to promote discussion and understanding of international issues and emerging trends. 

A new Global order is still emerging.   It has been marked by the collapse of both the post-cold war order as well as the political dominance of the West.  The emergence of strong regional powers is challenging the hegemony of the still predominant global actor, USA. The western world is in the process of re-examining its basic tenets.  All of us have to focus on how we reposition ourselves.    In that context, I am happy to be here today to address you on the theme of “Sri Lanka and its place in the world.” 

Sri Lanka’s location in the heart of the Indian Ocean straddling Western and Eastern Asia has made us beneficiaries of inter-regional trade for centuries.  The strategic importance of Sri Lanka as a regional hub in the realm of global commercial activity has been widely acknowledged. 

Historical records show that Sri Lanka was called by more than sixty-eight names is a clear testimony of the many nations and peoples that communicated with this Island State through the centuries and its importance as a port of call. 

In the ancient world, as far as global and navigational contexts were concerned, Sri Lanka possessed three strategic geographical advantages. 

-It was the vital southern-most point of mainland Asia;

-It was almost on the Equator where navigational winds and monsoon effects changed directions;

-It was the half waypoint between the two great empires of Rome and China. 

Even though navigational winds are no longer of relevance in the modern world, the geographical positioning of Sri Lanka still remains of consequence especially with the construction of the Suez Canal which provided a free passage between Europe and Asia.  

Even as an internal self-governing colony under the British, Sri Lankan leaders had a clear focus on Asia and was well aware of the choices facing the international community.   In January 1942, when the Allies stood at their most vulnerable moment, Sri Lanka re-affirmed its commitment to the Allies and extended all support to the United Nations.   After gaining independence from the British in 1948, Sri Lanka advocated and acted on the need for an Asian focus.   The Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Colombo, in 1950, which gave rise to the Colombo Plan was one such occasion. 

Immediately after the World War II, Sri Lanka led the Asian nations in supporting the Peace Treaty with Japan at the San Francisco Conference in 1951. This was a high watermark in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy after independence and the foundation for Sri Lanka’s relations with Japan. The concept of a completely independent Japan was first put forward at the Colombo Conference of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers in 1950, where the issue was considered - not as an isolated case, but as part of the South and South East Asian region. 

The independence of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy at the time was further emphasized by the Rubber-Rice Pact of 1952 that Sri Lanka entered into with the People’s Republic of China. We were not afraid to engage with countries based on our socio-economic needs. 

The 1954 the Colombo Powers Meeting brought together the leaders of India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, to work towards overcoming the issues of post-colonialism and to establish democracy and democratic institutions within these nations. 

This in turn led to the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, in 1955 which was the precursor to the Non-Aligned Movement. Sri Lanka played an active role in the Non Aligned Movement, and was selected as its Chair following the NAM Summit held in Colombo in 1976. 

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of both the Cold War and the post-Cold War era, there have been radical changes in the world order. Economic interest is increasingly driving national priorities and political affiliations. We must adjust to these evolving global priorities and realities. 

On the other side of the Indian Ocean, the African continent is also going through political and economic transformations, which could complement its already significant economic growth. The African Union is becoming more relevant in the current global context where the trade and economy of its member States are becoming increasingly integrated with other regions.   In recognition of this importance, Sri Lanka will be establishing a diplomatic mission at the seat of the African Union in Addis Ababa. 

The turn of the millennium has also witnessed another important development.   Unprecedented economic growth in Asia has shifted the world economic centre of gravity to the East since China has become the largest economy in the world, and while the US is 2nd, India, and Japan occupy 3rd and 4th places. Thus, new consumer markets in Asia and the expansion of the Asian middle class are changing the traditional focus of markets. 

The ADB has predicted that Asia will account for half of all global economic output by 2050 if the current levels of growth are maintained. 

While global power has generally manifested itself in the form of political and military influence, the current reality is that the scale of economic achievements and the strength of an economy underpin the weight of political, military and other influences of powerful nations. 

With 2 billion population, South Asia is also a considerable market with growing significance.  It is in this evolving context and dynamics of the globe that we in Sri Lanka have started to plan and project our own future.  

In the coming decades, managing our relations with several centers of global power, many of which directly or indirectly would seek to expand influence in the Asian seas will no doubt be a major challenge. It is on leveraging our advantages effectively in the overlapping spheres of economic and strategic interests, that our success within the region and beyond, inter alia, will depend. 

At the end of the internal conflict in Sri Lanka in 2009 we sought to isolate ourselves from emerging trends.   In the 6 years following the end of this conflict, there was deliberate, continued rejection of efforts at improving the human rights situation and embarking on genuine reconciliation. 

The National Unity Government established by President Maithripala Sirisena and myself have wholeheartedly taken on this challenge.  On 8th January 2015, President Sirisena was elected the Executive President on a policy platform of good governance, rule of law and accountability, transparency, re-democratization and reconciliation. The Parliamentary elections held in August 2015 gave a clear mandate for the formation of a national Government to advance these goals and to consolidate the drive towards development, peace and freedom; thereby establishing a society  free from corruption and fear. 

Reconciliation is being advanced in a manner that is both inclusive and genuine.  The different communities in Sri Lanka have to, first and foremost, be brought on an inclusive platform of mutual understanding and co-existence. 

Sri Lanka is currently engaged in drafting a Constitution that strengthens and entrenches fundamental rights and freedoms - with more power to the people. By co-sponsoring the HRC Resolution 30/1 Sri Lanka has reasserted its commitment to human rights and willingness to work with international partners in addressing issues of concern, while at the same time rebuilding and strengthening relations within the international community. Focus on reconciliation is the new Government’s commitment to fostering national unity, which is essential if we are to strengthen domestic stability and resume our march to become a high income economy. 

Overcoming internal contradictions through reconciliation and peace building in our view would empower the government and the people of Sri Lanka in their search for a significant role in the region and in the world. 

Our Government is now refocusing attention on repositioning Sri Lanka’s place on the international stage, which was lost during the long years of conflict. 

The global power transition to Asia creates both opportunities and challenges for Asia as whole and the Indian Ocean in particular. As noted earlier the paradigm shift in the balance of power affecting the countries of the Asian Oceans - the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean proffer extraordinary opportunities to create something fresh in the global context and something historically and uniquely beneficial to its people. 

Sri Lanka’s situation in the nautical corridor between the East and West is of import not only from a geostrategic perspective, but also from maritime economic and security perspectives. On the one hand, the Indian Ocean is a vast source of maritime economic resources, on the other, it is a maritime trading corridor through which nearly two thirds of the world’s oil is transported. Thus, the protection of the Indian Ocean is crucial for the energy, food and national security of many nations. This is where the location of Sri Lanka as a fulcrum of the Indian Ocean demands attention. 

Consequently, let us devote a moment to the discussion of the nature of big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean. It is important that we grasp the difference between the power dynamics of the Pacific and the Indian oceans. The Pacific is intrinsic to US Security and therefore has its own power play and strategic spectrum of political interests. 

In contrast, the Indian Ocean Region has maintained a multipolar characteristic by entering into partnerships with countries outside the region. The littoral states in the region have always resisted the domination of the Indian Ocean by any single entity. 

Therefore it is important that we limit the disputes in the Pacific Ocean from reaching the Indian Ocean. Yet, it is vital that we strengthen political and economic cooperation with East Asian and Pacific countries including New Zealand.  

Already our two nations are committed to cooperation in combatting people smuggling, trafficking persons, transnational crimes, terrorism and illegal fishing and other similar security issues in both Asia and the Pacific.   

While it could well be that a single Indo-Pacific Region for military security will have the potential to increase the likelihood of such rivalry spilling over to the Indian Ocean. A new initiative, on the other hand, that would ensure freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean will help to reduce the potential for such disputes. This is why a few weeks back in a speech delivered in Singapore, I proposed that SAARC and ASEAN get together to revitalize talks on the freedom of navigation.  

Sri Lanka is prepared to play a responsible role jointly with other nations towards ensuring the freedom of navigation from Maldives to the Malacca straits. It is vital to adopt an inclusive approach that invites all stakeholders to discussions concerning the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean.  

We are also prepared to develop our Naval and Air Forces to fulfill our role in this regard. 

In our perspective, the Indian Ocean remains key to Asian prosperity. An Indian Ocean order, which envisages at its core an ocean free of conflict despite competing economic interests - with lanes of communication, ease and safety of passage, secure and sustainable use of resources for the economic advancement of States in an equitable manner, is imperative. 

South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established to promote peace, amity and progress in the region by complementing bilateral and multi lateral cooperation. SAARC’s main function is to be a platform for dialogue at the heads of Government level contributing to the improvement of bilateral relations among members.  

Sri Lanka’s request at the inception of SAARC in 1985, to include cross border terrorism was rejected. At the time, this was considered to be a bilateral issue.  Today, cross border terrorism has gatecrashed the SAARC summit.  The recent terrorist attack on the Indian military base in Uri resulted in four member states stating their inability to attend the Islamabad Summit meeting in November this year.  Sri Lanka which is opposed to terrorism in all its form of manifestation, condemned this incident and has expressed regret that the prevailing environment does not permit the meeting. 

Yet if SAARC is to play a useful role, the annual summit meetings at heads of Government level must take place.  Therefore, this postponement must be utilized by the member countries to reflect on the question of cross border terrorism. The future of the SAARC depends on an outcome acceptable to all members.  If not, SAARC’s days are numbered. Then, Sri Lanka will have to look for other options.    The future – like in the past will depend on the ocean. 

The security and stability of the Indian Ocean is a pre-requisite to enable legitimate economic activity to preserve the maritime environment and seabed.  These geo-political realities require that Sri Lanka build strong bilateral relations with its fellow South Asian members and the Bay of Bengal members of ASEAN. The security of the Indian Ocean is a pre-requisite to achieve our economic objectives. 

Our government is also repositioning ourselves to maximise on our bilateral our relationships with both our historic and new trading partners. It must be not be forgotten that Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic position makes us a hub of the Indian Ocean as well as a transshipment port for the Bay of Bengal trade.  To fully tap this potential, Sri Lanka will engage in initiatives with regional players who have major economic stakes in the Indian Ocean. 

The India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries will be further expanded and deepened to go beyond trading goods to cover trade in services, investments and technology cooperation. The Governments of India and Sri Lanka hope to finalize an Economic Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) by 2017. The ETCA will enhance the scope of our existing economic partnership agreement to extend freer movement of goods and services with the added emphasis of cooperation in the development of technology. ETCA will provide an impetus to the existing synergies and has the potential to promote a rapid growth of the sub regional economy between Sri Lanka and the five South Indian states, which today accounts for US Dollars 500 billion. 

We are also negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Singapore. Singapore already has a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India. Therefore, we believe that by next year the Singapore-India (CEPA), the Indo-Lanka ETCA and the Sri Lanka-Singapore FTA will enable the southern sub region of South Asia and Singapore to establish a tripartite arrangement for trade and investments. 

Historically Sri Lanka played a major role in the Maritime Silk Route.  Therefore we are supporting the One Belt - One Road economic initiative.  This will consolidate our position as the Hub of the Indian Ocean while further integrating us with the Asian markets.  We are also negotiating a FTA with China as a part of this initiative.  The Chinese investments will be primarily directed to: 

  1. Industrialisation and further development of Hambantota Air Sea Hub in southern Sri Lanka and
  2. The creation of a Financial City to fill the vacuum for offshore financial service between Singapore and Dubai.

These programmes have no military implications. 

The economic cooperation between Japan and Sri Lanka is as important to us as the above mentioned FTAs. We are grateful that four decades of Japanese donor assistance has made a significant impact on our economic and social developments. The two countries are now holding discussions for further closer economic cooperation programme. 

We have already made the application to the European Union to regain the GSP+ facility for preferential access to the single market and are hopeful of an agreement by next year.  All these abovementioned measures are a pre-requisite for the Indian Ocean Hub. 

Sri Lanka will also institute Free Trade Agreements with the other Bay of Bengal countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.  Similar attention will also be paid to the Western Indian Ocean countries. 

For centuries Sri Lanka has had close ties with the West Asian Muslim countries and we are already undertaking talks to further strengthen our economic ties and trade ties with them.  

Sri Lanka is also looking forward to strengthening its trade relations both with UK and US, which we have enjoyed since independence.  But this however will depend on the following factors: 

  1. The outcome of the US Presidential and Congressional Elections of 2016;
  2. Negotiations between UK and European Union on Brexit.

Since 2010 Russia has begun to re-assert its economic and political power prioritizing its interests - expanding its global reach and its strategic importance.  This is in another sphere in which Sri Lanka has to strengthen economic relations. 

My speech will not be complete without speaking of Sri Lanka’s relationship with New Zealand.  Both are small islands, both live next to large neighbours, both have educated populations, both exist on agricultural economies which are diversifying into other sectors.  Both play cricket and rugby.  We have followed your lead in formulating enlightened social policies.  Our Parliament is currently discussing the adoption of New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportion election system. 

Next, I would like to refer to specific institutions to which both our countries belong  and how we could, together, broaden their mandates. 

The Commonwealth Charter which was adopted after UK joined the European Common Market  promotes the “values and aspirations” of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Understandably at that time there was no focus on trade. However, Intra Commonwealth trade has grown over the years, projected to surpass US $ 1 trillion by 2020. However, the full potential of trade remains yet to be fully tapped. 

The Commonwealth economy is growing three times faster than the EU economy and faster than the world average.   Over 2/3 of its population will be within the Sri Lankan hub of touching Africa on the one side of the Indian Ocean and Australia – New Zealand on the other side. 

The Kotte Statement on International Trade and Investment adopted by CHOGM 2013 held in Colombo states: “we recognize the potential for growth in intra commonwealth trade and investment as well as the importance of promoting practical measures to overcome constraints to such growth”. 

Therefore this is an appropriate time when UK is seeking a new role to give effect to the Kotte Statement by promoting a Commonwealth Framework for Trade and Investment. 



In the six decades of the Colombo Plan of which our two countries were founder members, the role of the state in the economy has shrunk, making way for free market private enterprises, which are fast becoming a part of the Global Value Chain. 

We should create space in the Colombo Plan to promote and strengthen the emerging private enterprises in Asia – Pacific with special emphasis on innovation.    This will also require the support from regional financial institutions, including ADB, AIIB, World Bank, JBIC etc.

We both work within the system of international institution with its numerous shortcomings.  Sri Lanka like New Zealand have always believed and worked within the UN system.  Sri Lanka and New Zealand are strong supporters of the UN Multilateral system, which underpins the policy of small states to promote and preserve their interests. We wish Helen Clark, a friend, all the best in her endeavours to become the Secretary General of the United Nations.  

Therefore, there are many areas in which we can work together to further promote UN ideals and objectives especially that of inclusive and sustainable  development.  Both our countries are high on the UN development index.  Sri Lanka has already surpassed regional figures.  Therefore we should coordinate efforts to ensure that UN members achieve the 17 goals of UN sustainable development.  The other is cooperating and ensuring the successful implementation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. 

The Government of Sri Lanka has a clear vision of what it wants Sri Lanka to be in the world today. As multi-ethnic island nation with a Commonwealth heritage and commitment to the global multilateral system we view New Zealand as a partner on whom we can count on for advice and guidance. Today, Sri Lanka is at an important juncture - faced with historic opportunities and key decisions to make in the political and economic domains at a time when the global political and economic order is also undergoing a radical transformation.  Therefore we will seize this opportunity and reposition ourselves to make a meaningful contribution to the international system. 





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