The visits of the two leading nations of the Far East, China and Japan, to Sri Lanka in the past two weeks, with China being among the emerging word economic powers and Japan re-asserting her importance in the region, with its alliance with the USA to counter the rise of China, has underscored Sri Lanka as the location of major importance in maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region.
The Joint Statements by the visiting leaders of China and Japan with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the various agreements signed between Sri Lanka and these two counties, especially between China and Sri Lanka, underscored this new position that Sri Lanka is emerging in regional maritime security.
Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed the common interests between Sri Lanka and China, interestingly with the commonality he saw with the new "Chinese Dream" that he is advancing, and the Mahinda Chinthana of Si Lanka. Speaking after the bi-lateral discussions and the signing of a large number of agreements and Memoranda of Understanding between the two countries, President Xi Jinping said: "It is in good time to make sail in the broad sea with favourable wind.
The ancient Maritime Silk Road is refreshing and opening up new channels." He stressed that currently the Chinese people are striving to realize the "Chinese Dream" of achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and Sri Lanka has put forward the "Mahinda Vision" of national rejuvenation and development, and the objectives of the two sides correspond with each other. China is willing to work with Sri Lanka to seize the opportunity, plan the cooperation, and promote the China-Sri Lanka strategic cooperative partnership for solid and in-depth development, so as to better benefit the two peoples.
Similarly, in the Joint Statement issued after bi-lateral discussions between President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan said that, "Recognizing Sri Lanka's enormous potential as a maritime nation in the Indian Ocean, the President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, gave much importance to the strategic location of Sri Lanka, in the India Ocean sea lanes straddling Asia and Africa, and expressed their determination to expand the long-standing friendship between the two countries into "a new partnership between maritime countries"; and further strengthen the cooperative relations to play significant roles in the stability and prosperity of the Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions."
China: Strategic cooperation
The understandings reached between China and Sri Lanka saw much emphasis on the aspects of maritime security, with the areas of assistance by China to Sri Lanka covering the deepening of the strategic cooperative partnership, negotiation for the China - Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, wide ranging technical cooperation between the two countries and maritime cooperation emphasizing on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route where Sri Lanka would be a hub of development.
The Chinese President said that the new Maritime Silk Route proposed by China and the Mahinda Chinthana vision were cut out for each other and would be most conducive for development of Sri Lanka, especially in port construction and development, expansion of the maritime economy and ensuring maritime security. There was also an agreement on China - Sri Lanka Coastal and Marine Joint Research and Development. The two leaders discussed many areas of possible close cooperation including support for Chinese naval vessels in Sri Lanka, carrying out joint naval exercises for common areas of maritime safety, expanding military assistance to Sri Lanka including training of military personnel, providing of a coastal patrol vessel and cooperation on JF17 jets.
Japan: "new partnership"
The importance of Sri Lanka's enormous potential as a maritime nation in the Indian Ocean Region being recognized, the leaders of Japan and Sri Lanka expressed their determination to expand the long-standing friendship between the two countries into "a new partnership between maritime countries"; and further strengthen the cooperative relations to play significant roles in the stability and prosperity of the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.
They decided that bearing in mind the importance of ensuring the freedom and safety of navigation in the region, it was necessary to establish the Sri Lanka - Japan Dialogue on Maritime Security and Oceanic Issues, which will effectively address the issues of mutual interest in oceanic issues.
Prime Minister Abe expressed his gratitude to the Sri Lankan government for the facilitation of port calls in Sri Lanka by the vessels of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), and both leaders expressed satisfaction with the steady progress in the promotion of cooperation and exchanges between the two defense establishments. They welcomed the cooperation between coast guards in the fields of maritime law enforcement, Search and Rescue (SAR), disaster risk reduction and environment protection. The two leaders expressed satisfaction with the steady progress in the promotion of cooperation and exchanges between the two defense establishments, as confirmed at the last summit meeting in March 2013. The two leaders decided to further promote cooperation and exchanges in the field of maritime security. The two leaders noted the extensive cooperation highlighted through exercises and the participation at symposiums by JMSDF and the Sri Lanka Navy.
The new recognition of Sri Lanka's strategic position in the Indian Ocean, as clearly noted by both China and Japan, and very much in keeping with the concerns of Maritime Safety in the Indian Ocean, which has been the subject of the regular annual Galle Dialogue of the subject. As Secretary of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa stated at the Galle Dialogue 2012, strategic cooperation and partnership is essential to achieve lasting security, stability and success in the Indian Ocean region.
Stressing the importance of the Indian Ocean he said that despite adverse global economic conditions, the volume of world's containerized cargo that crosses the Indian Ocean has only increased over time and there is keen interest among the nations in assuring the safety and security of it.
Talking on the threats posed at the Indian Ocean he said that these threats may seriously affect the security, stability and sustainability of the Indian Ocean region and its impact is felt not only by regional littoral nations but also globally. He identified piracy, terrorism, illegal human, drug and arms trafficking, illegal and unregulated fishing and waste disposal as the major issues among others that seriously affect the security and sustainability of the Indian Ocean.
India: Monsoon winds
The recognition of this strategic importance of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, especially with the increasing ocean routes in this region, has received considerable attention by India, and the current BJP Government of Narendra Modi. The Times of India (TOI) of September 16, had a report by Sachin Paradsar of TNN, titled "Narendra Modi's 'Mausam' manoeuvre to check China's maritime might". It is significant that this came when the Chinese President was visiting Sri Lanka and on the eve of his visit to India.
The report said that as China's President Xi Jinping comes calling on Wednesday, India is all set to launch what is probably the Narendra Modi government's most significant foreign policy initiative for countering Beijing's growing influence in the Indian Ocean region. Long accused of remaining a mute spectator to China's expanding interests in the region - and the astounding success of Beijing's "maritime silk road" proposal - India will soon launch its own Project Mausam, a transnational initiative meant to revive its ancient maritime routes and cultural linkages with countries in the region.
Titled Project Mausam: Maritime Routes and Cultural Landscapes Across the Indian Ocean, the project focuses on the natural wind phenomenon, especially monsoon winds used by Indian sailors in ancient times for maritime trade, that has shaped interactions between countries and communities connected by the Indian Ocean.
TOI has learned that Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh held a meeting with Culture Secretary Ravindra Singh to discuss how to give shape to the project, garbed in India's cultural linkages but with a serious strategic dimension, in light of the Chinese emphasis on the maritime silk route.
According to sources, Project Mausam aims to explore the multifaceted Indian Ocean "world" - extending from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka to the Southeast Asian archipelago.
While India is also among the countries invited to join China's maritime silk route initiative, New Delhi has been alarmed by the interest shown by Sri Lanka and Maldives in the Chinese proposal, which ostensibly seeks to revive ancient economic linkages, the TOI states."
There is now clear evidence of Sri Lanka's emergence as the strategic hub in the Indian Ocean, with the attraction it has gained, and is expected to enhance, in ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region.
Sri Lanka will no doubt gain strength internationally by this new recognition, and will also need to lay emphasis on its Non-Aligned Foreign Policy, which extends friendship to all, with friendship towards immediate neighbours and distant friends having both historical and cultural links and the importance of modern connectivity in ocean trade and security.