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PM moots Indian Ocean Fund

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj greeting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the second Indian Ocean Conference held at Temple Trees yesterday. (PM’s media unit)

Stresses stable order for freedom of navigation:

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka will take a leading role in establishing a stable legal order for the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and promote regional trade.

The Prime Minister also proposed the establishment of an Indian Ocean Fund which will provide much needed capital for national banks in the regions to promote business expansion.

Addressing the inaugural session of the second Indian Ocean Conference held at Temple Trees, the Prime Minister stressed that Sri Lanka placed enviably at the centre of the Indian Ocean was well poised to play a significant role in its future.

The Indian Ocean Conference organized by the India Foundation seeks to bring together countries in the region to discuss matters of common interest. Last year the conference was held in Singapore.

Global power, however was shifting to Asia, and the Prime Minister quoting the HSBC World in Focus report stated that 19 countries among Asia would be among the largest in the world by 2050.

By 2030, Asia is expected to surpass the West in global power in terms of population, GDP and technology and military spending.Furthermore by 2030, it would be a multi-polar world with the USA, China, India, Japan, Russia and Germany taking the helm.

Given this structure, the Prime Minister pointed that it was important for Sri Lanka`s future development to promote ‘peace, progress and prosperity’- this year’s theme of the conference. The challenge, the PM noted was the lack of political will among the nations in the Indian Ocean region to promote inter regional economic cooperation - especially trade liberalisation and connectivity. Thus South Asia remains the least economically integrated region in the world.

Wickremesinghe in his demand for greater trade in the region, asked that the littoral states, implement the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Action Plan 2017-2022 ‘recommendation on trade and investment’ agreed to in Jakarata, within the next four years.

‘Let this conference recommend to IORA a need for a credible strategy which would include reducing protectionist trade measures, implementing ease of doing business measures, commitment to the WTO trade facilitation agreements and remove by tariffs, para tariffs and non-tariffs over an agreed period of time`, said the Prime Minister.

Given the lack of a multilateral trade agreement in the region, the Prime Minister said Sri Lanka would embark on bilateral trade agreements with all countries to push greater prosperity.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe also urged all countries to concentrate on a Blue Economy and have IORA coordinate efforts from all countries to address ‘overfishing, pollution and habitat losses’.

Coming back to security, the Prime Minister reiterated his call for the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and there be unhindered lawful maritime commerce according to international standards.

‘World major powers have deployed substantial military powers in the Indian ocean. Vital sea lanes of communication should be open for all and must be used for mutual benefit in a sustainable manner`, he said.

As he touched on the maritime build up of major players such as India, Australia, China, USA and Japan from ocean and the latter three increasing their forward naval presence, Wickremesinghe warned of the need to watch out for naval competition among these major powers.

He also remarked that the current clauses from 34-56 of UNCLOS too were insufficient to deal with modern threats from terrorism to the 10 choke points in the Indian Ocean and thus Sri Lanka was prepared to work with all partners to create a shared vision for economic and security engagement.

‘A code of conduct which ensures freedom of navigation will be an essential component of this vision’, he said.

He thus encouraged the littoral states to join Sri Lanka in discussion on establishing a stable legal order based on freedom of navigation so that the states themselves can decide their fate in the Indian Ocean.

The Prime Minister assured all gathered that Sri Lanka will not enter into any military agreements with any country or make its bases available to foreign countries, ‘We will continue military cooperation such as training, supply of equipment and joint exercises with friendly countries’, he said.

‘Just a few 100m from Temple Trees lies an Ocean destined to decide the future of the world’, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister said as he signalled that Sri Lanka was ready to pave the way for cooperation rather than conflict in the region.