r Ministry of Defence - Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's Quest for Strategic Equilibrium in a Shifting World Order

September 15, 2023

by Commander Amila Prasanga

Published on The Morning on 29th August 2023.

Sri Lanka is the name given to the island of Ceylon, situated on the southernmost extremity of the Indian subcontinent. While at first glance, it appears to be a landmass that has eroded and split off from India, resting in the ocean within what would be Indian territorial waters, thereby seeming like an island belonging to India. However, there are factors that have created a space permitting it to be defined as an independent sovereign territory.

Geologically, models of continental movement based on plate tectonics theory depict Ceylon forming as a piece of land separated from present-day Indonesia. It moved towards the Indian subcontinent until it reached its current position, just a few kilometers away from India. Historically, the island developed under the British Empire, functioning as an entrepôt and a strategic outpost, which later became the headquarters of the British South East Asian Command during World War II. Its financial sustenance came from global markets for products of the British-built plantation industry, supported by ports, roads, and railways. For an entrepôt to function effectively, a weak sovereignty, dependent on guarantees from patrons, is required. Thus, independence from India and other regional and global powers is essential for realizing its potential.

The island is home to diverse groups with distinct histories, cultures, languages, ethnicities, and religions. These groups welcome tourists and are gearing up to showcase their lifestyles, culture, and heritage. Native villages, sustained by tank-based irrigation networks, agricultural production, and artisan craftsmanship, are scattered throughout the island. Visitors can immerse themselves in these communities and experience the various prevailing cultures and lifestyles. The island's offerings include beaches along the coasts, historical sites, forests and wildlife, delectable cuisine, vibrant pageants, indigenous orchestras, captivating handicrafts, dancers, and exotic rituals. Exploring the island can take months without exhausting its repertoire of sights, sounds, climates, and scenery.

The British bestowed welfare measures upon the natives, promoted education and modernization, and introduced liberal democratic values. Various ethnic groups were intricately mingled, with Burghers being prominent in railways, police and armed forces' officers, and the plantation industry's superintendents. Native Tamils were engaged in government administration, agriculture, fisheries, and education. Indian workers were concentrated on plantations, while Indian immigrants took up various professions. Moors engaged in trade and livestock rearing, and Sinhalese were involved in agriculture, transport, arrack production, fisheries, artisan craftsmanship, media, and business.

Post-World War II, developmental dialogues between the government and multilateral institutions culminated in the decision to develop organized, large-scale commercial tourism as a developmental pillar for the island's economy. This move aimed to generate employment and boost dollar revenue flows. In 1966, supporting legislation was adopted, followed by the construction of the first five-star tourist hotels in the early 1970s. Large tourist agencies began marketing the island as a prime tourist destination. Tourist revenue grew to 6.4% of GDP in 2018, only to drop to 1.3% in 2022 due to the post-pandemic and global economic climate.

In an era of post-civil war development, China extended a substantial offer to lend funds to the Sri Lankan government for constructing infrastructure components that were already earmarked for the island's development by multilateral developmental institutions. These projects also encompassed significant elements of China's Belt and Road initiative. All these endeavors were financed through loans from China, with the Sri Lankan government committing to repayment. This implies that Sri Lanka would essentially be funding critical aspects of China's Belt and Road initiative.

Notably, at the entrance to the Colombo port, China utilized its technological expertise to establish a port city on reclaimed land from the ocean. The citizenry envisions this city becoming a vibrant regional stock market hub, complete with its own Securities and Exchange Commission and Company Registry. This ambitious vision aims to facilitate large-scale regional operations for listing, capital raising, and establishment of regional headquarters.

The overarching dream involves transforming the island into an offshore banking service provider. This would be underpinned by stern legislative frameworks to prevent, detect, and penalize tax evasion and money laundering, coupled with enticing financial, geo-strategic, legislative, political, and cultural incentives. The aspiration includes attracting financiers and major investors, while the port city is anticipated to become a source of employment and a hub for advanced human resources training worldwide. Envisaged also is the island drawing high net worth individuals, making it their recreational center and retirement destination. Their presence is seen as bringing goodwill and accrued expertise.

Alongside the port city, a strategic network of highways is currently under construction, aimed at connecting key ports and cities across the island. Furthermore, China has established an airport at Mattala in proximity to the Hambantota port and the Weerawila Air Force base. The port of Hambantota has emerged as a site teeming with developmental potential. Sri Lankans hold aspirations for this location to host the second International Humanitarian City, serving as a logistics center and supplies base for Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) operations across regions linked by the island. Moreover, it's poised to serve as a pivotal logistical support center for China's Belt and Road initiative. This involved complex at Hambantota, encompassing the harbor's potential, forms the nucleus of concerns due to its strategic implications. While the undeniable strategic potential surpasses initial appearances, the reasons behind the concerns it generates warrant careful scrutiny and responses.

Thus, let's endeavor to identify the roots of this unease. The evolutionary processes within the human species have given rise to institutional structures ranging from individual to family, state, empire, and global levels. These structures operate at personal, local, territorial, regional, and planetary scales, essential to supporting and sustaining the species through resource extraction, agriculture, manufacturing, services, and distribution.

The inherently unequal global distribution of resources, coupled with the uneven progression and the cultivation of multiple identities tied to geographical locations and personal allegiances, inevitably leads to conflicts that necessitate containment and resolution. The movement of these identities and their influence on geographical locations is commonly perceived as colonization.

Historically, these conflicts revolve around the persistent endeavor to secure global acceptance of an emerging set of core values, principles, processes, and their supporting institutional structures, sciences, and technologies. These elements are considered the bedrock of civilization, within which the diverse activities of the species can be accommodated. This historical pattern reveals that attempts by various group identities to reject these elements and resist integration have frequently led to acts of genocide. The specter of such events recurring invokes a sense of fear within the species.

China has opted to diverge from integrating the set of core values, processes, structures, and the dominant civilization's system. Instead, China is embarked on constructing a global strategic network tailored to bolster the security of its distinct system. It can be argued that the prevailing global civilization, often referred to as the "World Capitalist System," now confronts the challenge of accommodating an alternative system and engaging in a competition for global dominance. This dynamic hinges on whether a single world civilization, as opposed to multiple, is deemed necessary for the continued evolutionary progress and survival of the species within the framework of planet Earth.

The possibility of opting for competition over accommodation has evoked widespread concern, particularly pronounced in Sri Lanka and the regions connected by this island. Consequently, the Non-Aligned Movement articulated in its Lusaka Declaration in September 1970; that the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) should be declared a Zone of Peace. Given Sri Lanka's potential - straddling vital maritime routes, boasting one of the world's largest natural harbors, and functioning as a hub linking regional organizations - the island is primed to house the strategic function of the global developmental process as it impacts these regions. This role necessitates Sri Lanka to play a pivotal part in balancing geo-strategic equations within the IOR.

To fulfill this role effectively, Sri Lanka requires firm assurances from all stakeholders that its sovereignty will remain intact, allowing engagement with both the core principles of the prevailing global civilization and those of the resurgent Chinese system. This leverage is crucial for effectively addressing the interests of the diverse stakeholders. Additionally, the establishment of a second International Humanitarian City in the southern sea port of Hambantota, functioning as a logistics and supply base for Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) operations across the region, can contribute to structuring the island's potential function as a platform. This platform could foster a mechanism similar to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), involving maritime powers across the Indian Ocean, collaborating to establish an Indian Ocean Treaty Organization (IOTO). Such an organization could facilitate vessel movement and security among member countries, ensuring the unimpeded flow of vital resources.

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* Commander Amila Prasanga is a Military Research Officer at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established under the Ministry of Defence. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.



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