Panelists Robert Blake, former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and Tissa Jayatilaka, executive director of the Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, said the risks associated with the Indian Ocean will rise in the coming years at a talk on Tuesday evening.
Jayatilaka said that current environmental concerns in the Indian Ocean have serious implications for Sri Lanka.
“For countries like Sri Lanka, the oceans are quite literally life and death,” he said. “Rise of the seas, pollution of oceans, depletions of fish or good coastal ecosystems are not abstractions: they form the core of our existence,” he said.
For this reason, Sri Lanka’s goals and foreign policy objectives in the region should be to keep the vital sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean open to all in a mutually beneficial and sustainable manner, Jayatilaka said.
“Through a pragmatic foreign policy, based on avoidance of alliances with any one power bloc and maintaining friendship with all, Sri Lanka should be able to play a constructive role in the Indian Ocean,” he added.
The economic significance of the Indian Ocean as the center of global trade, however, has drawn the interest of global powers, including China, India, Japan and the U.S., Blake said.
While India sees the Indian Ocean as its strategic backyard, China has played a much greater role in the Indian Ocean by expanding the size of its fleets and developing foreign ports, he said, creating an emerging rivalry between the two nations.
And rising tensions due to China’s economic and military expansion have led the U.S. to cement its partnership with India, Blake said.
“That process of strengthening our relations with India has continued through every administration, including even Donald Trump’s,” he said.
But the U.S. has only recently begun to play a more active role in the Indian Ocean and is planning to prioritize economic integration, Blake said.
“For many years we neglected the Indian Ocean. We turned our backs on the Indian Ocean and focused more on the land based interests that we had in Africa, Middle East and Asia,” he said.
The ongoing partnerships between Japan, India and the U.S. are indispensable to prevent future tensions in the Indian Ocean region, Blake said.
Emphasizing collaboration and international diplomacy, Jayatilaka said Sri Lanka should enact policies to reduce tension in the Indian Ocean. He also pushed for an international code of conduct for military vessels.
“Any code on the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean must include an effective and realistic dispute resolution process. The code of conduct ideally should be built with consensus with no single state dominating it,” he said.