Today I had the opportunity to speak at two hallowed British institutions: the London Stock Exchange founded in 1698, and now at the Oxford Union born in 1823. Many Sri Lankans educated at Oxford have made an impact in Sri Lanka. Among them were two Presidents of this very Union – my colleagues – Lalith Athulathmudali – we studied at the same school, we entered Parliament at the same time in 1977 and we sat in the same Cabinets. Lakshman Kadirgamar, who like me, studied for the LLB at the University of Colombo, and then came to Balliol. They were both Presidents of the Union in the Hillary terms of 1957-58 and 1958-59, respectively, and both their lives were cut short by the violence perpetrated by the LTTE.
I thought I would speak to you, giving you a perspective from our hemisphere, given its heightening importance. I was born a subject of George VI – King of the Dominion of Ceylon. George VI was not only the King of the United Kingdom, its dependencies and other dominions, but he was also the Emperor of India. Today, Ceylon is Sri Lanka. The Crown in my country has been replaced by a Republic. The Indian Empire has dissolved. The colonies have become independent states. The largest remaining dependency of the United Kingdom is the British Antarctic Territory.
Before 1500 AD, the great centres of world power were outside the Western world. In the Far East, South Asia, the Middle East and the pre- Columbian Central America, there were centres of innovation and creativity, wealth, social organization, and great economic prosperity. For instance in the 15th Century, China had an enormous fleet of ships. Yet because of the rising affluence of the merchant class, the political elite decided to destroy this fleet and address the more pressing concern of the invading Mongols.
Within a brief period of about 50 to 75 years, a small and not too significant part of the world – Western Europe – reached out and laid the foundations for a global hegemony that endured for about four or five centuries. Between the voyages of Columbus in 1492 and Magellan in 1522, the Western World began to establish a set of footprints so extensive, that at its peak on the eve of the World War I, about one hundred years ago, the Western World controlled, occupied or owned 85 per cent of the Asian and African territory and an equivalent share of the global wealth.
At its core was the Anglo-Saxon heartland of Britain and America. Yet, as the 20th Century unfolded, this hegemony began to dissolve. Two massive world wars, the protracted Cold War, sporadic Anti-Colonial Revolutions as well as the Vietnam War saw the atrophy of the Western World — and the mighty global footprints of Empires diminishing. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Europe in the 1990s led to a brief unipolar global order dominated by the US. But it did not last.
Instead in the last five decades of the 20th century, many Asian countries led by Japan, China, India and South Korea commenced industrialization producing goods and services for the developed economies. They also mastered sophisticated infrastructure technologies – developing high- speed railways like that between Tokyo and Osaka; developing cutting-edge city ports like Shanghai; converting paddy fields into gigantic manufacturing zones like Shenzhen, old colonial cantonments into multinational software centres like Bangalore and Hyderabad, transforming historic cities into global metropolises like Seoul. Technological leapfrogging brought these countries into the forefront of development.
Large populations, which were previously seen as an economic burden are now seen as a marketplace for products, services and ideas. Around four billion of the world’s population is already in Asia. This not only presents a marketplace for products and ideas, but also a marketplace for futuristic imagination, invention, and innovation.
The Asian Development Bank states that “Asia is in the middle of a historic transformation. If it continues to follow its recent trajectory, by 2050 its per capita income could rise six-fold in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms to reach Europe’s levels today.” It would make some three billion additional Asian affluent by current standards. By nearly doubling its share of global gross domestic product (GDP) to 52 per cent by 2050, Asia would regain the dominant economic position it held some 300 years ago, before the industrial revolution.
Such historic and contemporary shifts and dynamics in global power mean that we live in a transforming world – old powers die; new players emerge; future balances are fashioned and former cycles are reinforced.
In this re-shaping, a new global cartography seems to be emerging which will probably take a decade or two to crystallize.
At best I can visualize it; four quadrants are beginning to take shape, each with a great potential for global influence and power, each with some major challenges which will determine its impact on the balance of power in the new world order.
One quadrant is, of course, the WESTERN WORLD, the members of the NATO and the European Union the captains of the world’s wealth. The future of the Western World in the global landscape will fundamentally depend on whether it can maintain cohesiveness or whether disunity will erode its position. The Western World will maintain the highest per capita GDP. It will be in the forefront of technological development and innovations. The US would still remain the strongest global military power. The Western World acting together will have a significant military clout. But the ability to maintain its power projection requires allies in other parts of the globe – especially Asia.
The second quadrant is, of course, CHINA with close to 1.5 billion people. The astonishing economic advancement of China in the past two decades has profoundly re-shaped world affairs. Moreover, the assertiveness of the People’s Republic under President Xi Jinping further reinforces this ascendancy.
Beyond the South and East China Seas the Chinese are attempting to make an unprecedented outreach to developing Asia, Africa and Central Europe. No other major nation in our time has been able to orchestrate such a comprehensive and interconnected strategy.
The third emerging cluster is the ISLAMIC WORLD – again with about 1.6 billon people. Islam has long been a staunch faith which has had occasional political explorations beyond the Middle East. But for a century, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Islam has had a very limited impact on world affairs. However, in the past three decades or so, the political temperature of Islam and its geographic outreach have grown exponentially.
Nonetheless, the Islamic World is riven with conflicts. Yet, despite these differences, the Islamic World has gained a considerable measure of political significance recently, a group with access to vital natural resources with major followings in about 50-60 nations all over the world.
The fourth quadrant consists of the remaining countries. While these will not be a unified group, there will be those who are both economically and militarily powerful in this amorphous collection of states. However, they will possess the potential of determining the final outcome of this power play. Other than Russia, the others – Japan, India, and South Korea are Asian. Though not possessing a combined military force, ASEAN will also increase its clout to become the fourth largest economic bloc by 2050.
The Global Order put into place at the end of the last century – consisted of the Western World, Asia Pacific, and the G8. The Indian Ocean which was the main sea-lane for East-West shipping was not in the equation.
But today, the rapid Asian economic growth is driving tighter linkages with the Middle East and Africa. As a result, the Indian Ocean sea-lanes today carry approximately half the world’s containerized cargo, two-thirds of its oil shipments, and one-third of its bulk cargo. The Indian Ocean economies have an extremely rich resource base, accounting for nearly 17% of global oil reserves, 28% of proven natural gas assets, 35.5% of global currently makes up 35% of the world’s total.
This global power shift has brought the Indian Ocean to the forefront resulting in three of the quadrants and other Asian powers making the Indian Ocean the chessboard for a new power play. This competition has led to a number of trade and infrastructure initiatives sponsored by both China and Japan as well as India, the main littoral state starting its own initiatives.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative covering three continents, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization seek to establish a China-centric transcontinental relationship in a multi-polar world.
Yet, the expanding presence of China in the Indian Ocean has raised concerns amongst other countries – especially in the context of the expansion of its naval forces.Japan – the first entrant into the Indian Ocean over five decades ago has expanded its programme with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure.
Similarly, India has launched Act East and Neighbourhood First Policies. Japan and India have made a joint declaration to act together with the aim of upholding the freedom of navigation and promoting growth in Africa through the Africa-Asia Growth Corridors. Earlier, the Indian Ocean was considered to be of limited strategic importance. However, now its significance is growing to the extent that a new concept of Indo Pacific is emerging. This is an indication that the powers of the Western world are becoming limited. The best example is of Japan coming forward to lead the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership when the US opted out. Furthermore, Japan has now invited the UK to opt into the same CPTP.
Yet the concept of the Indo Pacific and its objectives has yet to be defined. Some have welcomed the Indo-Pacific as a means of containing China. Others see imaginary Chinese naval bases – in fact in Sri Lanka – whereas Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port is a Commercial joint venture between our Ports Authority and China Merchant – a company listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
There are no foreign naval bases in Sri Lanka. Our Navy’s Southern Command is being relocated in Hambantota to control port security. The US Defence Department has been briefed on these developments. The Sri Lankan Army’s 1-2 Division is stationed in the vicinity. We are also concluding a similar commercial agreement for the Hambantota Airport with the Airport Authority of India.
In this atmosphere of suspicion, many countries fear that the South China Sea issues can spill over – leading to future militarization and military competition in the Indian Ocean. This has resulted in a number of stakeholders intensifying their interest and presence in the Indian Ocean by expanding their fleets, upgrading their bases, securing access to foreign ports, and aggressive naval posturing via joint exercises, extended sorties, and live-fire drills.
Therefore, it is necessary to maintain the distinct identity of the Indian Ocean within a larger Indo-Pacific. The interests of the smaller states are best served by advocating for and upholding a rules-based order in the region.
Thus for the Indian Ocean region requires a common understanding that will ensure peace and stability within the region. This understanding must be based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). There is also the need to work towards building a regional framework for both trade and security – while ensuring that the region remains free, open and inclusive.
Consequently, the Indo-Pacific should be a functional concept in creating the architecture for a multi polar region – the first step to containing tension in the Indo-Pacific with its patchwork regional politics under different umbrellas such as APEC, Shanghai Organisation and ASEAN. A classic example is Russia, a member of the first two organizations simultaneously having close relations with both China and India.
Furthermore, if we are to closely integrate the markets of Asia and Africa, we have also to uphold a multilateral trading system. The establishment of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is a pre-requisite step which will also give ASEAN a key role in the Indo Pacific.
As strengthening UNCLOS is imperative for the security of smaller states in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is bringing together 40 Indian Ocean littoral states and its major maritime users, for a conference which seeks to serve as a platform for regional dialogue, initiating conversations on outstanding issues relating to UNCLOS, and lay the foundation for further confidence- building measures in the future.
For Sri Lanka, organizing this conference is about reclaiming its long- standing tradition of normative leadership for greater good. From 1951, we organized the Colombo Plan Conference on to the Asian Powers Conference and Non Aligned meetings; Sri Lanka has called for regional conferences from time to time.
The experience we have built in, together with our experience in the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) we are in a sense, “returning home” to an area of international law that Sri Lanka has played a key role in creating. It is Sri Lanka’s contribution towards an international public good – rules-based order, which will in turn facilitate a stable and prosperous Indian Ocean region in the coming decades.
Video (Full Speech with Q&A session) = https://youtu.be/gOgw0k_cbDk
Transcript of Speech: Geopolitics of The Indian Ocean Region = http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=192668
- “H’tota Port set to accomplish top position in region ,” 3 August 2018, http://www.dailynews.lk/2018/08/03/business/158690/h%E2%80%99tota-port-set-accomplish-top-