There was no pressure from India, and no objections from China to Sri Lanka’s decision to ban research vessels for one year, says Sri Lankan Foreign Minister MUM Ali Sabry in an interview with The Hindu on the sidelines of the Indian Ocean Conference in Perth. The Minister said that as Sri Lanka turns the corner on its economy, it is seeking investment and collaborations rather than handouts.
The World Bank says Sri Lanka is now in an economic recovery period. But are there still many challenges when it comes to getting funds in?
Yes, the immediate challenge is to complete our debt restructure process and start repaying the debt that we have suspended payments on. We need to win the confidence of the international community for them to make serious investments. The challenges remain but we are confident compared to what we were two years ago.
Are you seeking more help from India in addition to the $4.5 billion in credit lines, loans, currency swaps and debt moratoriums?
No, rather than credit lines and loans, we are keen to work with India in terms of investments, technical collaboration, and knowledge sharing.
It has been six years since India and Sri Lanka signed MoUs for oil storage and connectivity projects in Trincomalee. When do you expect to see some movement, and what is holding them up?
We discussed this [with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar] here in Perth too. We are in the process of establishing joint working committees, and there is a desire to kickstart a “Joint Regional Authority” to decide on regulations. Given the need for commercial viability, involvement of private sector in these projects, they may take longer than anticipated to get the right partners and to complete the feasibility studies.
Are great power rivalries in the Indian Ocean, especially U.S.-China tensions an increasing concern?
We want to avoid having their rivalry coming to our doorstep. Sovereignty means that the countries should be able to make their own choices. That doesn’t mean that we shut our doors to the world, but have a multi-aligned foreign policy on a case by case basis. This sort of rivalry may work for the big powers but not for the world. That’s why Sri Lanka took a resolution to the UN (in 1964) to declare Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace and we continue to push for that.
Is that why Sri Lanka placed a one-year ban on all foreign research vessels coming in to its ports?
That is a technical decision. Basically, we felt that if ships are coming to conduct research in our waters, we should have the kind of capacity to understand their findings and to share the correct data. I don’t think Sri Lanka has that right now. That’s why we decided that we should take a pause, see, assess and improve our capacities.
Chinese media have said that the ban was due to Indian pressure, to stop Chinese dual purpose research vessels from coming in…
No, this was our decision, for the betterment of our country. Of course, we continue to allow military ships which come for port calls, replenishment, and for joint exercises which is part of our commitment in UNCLOS.
Did China object to the decision, given that it had a vessel in the area at the time?
We communicated our decision to whoever who has sent research vessels to Sri Lanka during the last 10 years or so; so probably most countries expected it. We have [had] a good relationship with China for a long time. Every relationship has challenges but overall we understand each other and we take a lot of effort not to hurt our friends and allies.
Is the problem between India and the Maldives, specifically over Indian troops positioned there, affecting Indian Ocean stability?
I don’t think so. We have, in fact, discussed that with both countries. Whatever the differences, we hope they negotiate and resolve the matter diplomatically, so that it doesn’t escalate beyond this.
When it comes to regional groupings, there seems to be more emphasis now on BIMSTEC than SAARC. Given Indian tensions with Pakistan, Afghanistan and now Maldives, do you see the concept of SAARC going away?
For Sri Lanka, we hope there will be a time when India and Pakistan sit and negotiate and resolve their differences. But we can’t wait for that and need to look at the alternatives, and IORA and BIMSTEC are taking shape. We have had a very interesting BIMSTEC ministerial retreat at Bangkok last year, where we decided how we can expand and make the grouping more viable, and we hope to have a summit this year in Thailand, which was put off last year.?