Sri Lanka will not take part in any “big power rivalry" in the Indian Ocean and it is unfortunate that his country has been made the “punching bag" for Hambantota, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said, weeks after India and China clashed over the docking of a high-tech Chinese ship at the country’s southern port. Wickremesinghe said the Indian Ocean region needs to be open to all to ensure freedom of navigation.
That is important for commerce to carry on. We have to remember that the bulk of the petroleum supply and energy supply to the world goes through the Indian Ocean. A large amount of shipping goes through the Indian Ocean. We don’t want this to be an area of conflict and an area of war, he said in his speech made at the National Defense College on Wednesday. Sri Lanka will not participate in military alliances and does not want the problems of the Pacific coming into the Indian Ocean, he said while speaking on the crisis-hit country’s position on the geopolitical stage.
“We don’t participate in a military alliance, and we certainly do not want the problems of the Pacific coming to the Indian Ocean. We don’t want this to be an area of conflict and an area of war. Sri Lanka will not take part in any big power rivalry," Wickremesinghe said. His remarks came weeks after the Chinese embassy and the Indian High Commission here clashed verbally over the docking of the Chinese ship ‘Yuan Wang 5’ at Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota port for replenishment.
When it comes to the security of Sri Lanka, we are of the view that in looking after the security of Sri Lanka, we must also ensure that nothing adverse happens to the security of India. That we have been committed to, and we will go ahead with it. There will be no movement out of it, Wickremesinghe said. That’s why we work with India on the Colombo conclave, on the trilateral security arrangements and many other fields, especially outside the military field of piracy, of human trafficking, of drugs. All those are useful ways in which we cooperate with India and the other island states. Then we also value our friendship with the Maldives, those small islands, and we know how important the Maldives is, he said.
Wickremesinghe said that the “geopolitics of the Indian Ocean has unfortunately made Sri Lanka the punching bag for Hambantota." “It is not a military port. Though ours is a commercial port it shows our strategic importance that many people come to conclusions which are unwarranted," Wickremesinghe said, in his second public comment on the issue in recent weeks. He said that there are around 17 ports that are being operated by the Chinese in the Indian Ocean and all the ports are commercial ports, stressing that the Hambantota port is also a commercial port and not a military port.
Wickremesinghe said if there is security sensitivity, it is in the Australian port of Darwin where the Chinese ports are operating side by side in an area where Australian and US forces are being trained. We don’t have that. We don’t allow anyone to come and train here, but we do have our southern command of the navy. We have a divisional headquarters of the army and we have a detachment of the Air Force. But none of them are involved. They only ensure that this is a commercial port and no less, he said.
On August 30, President Wickremesinghe appealed to all political parties to join an all-party government to tackle the island nation’s worst-ever economic crisis and prevent “strong economies" from using it as a “tool of interference." “We can no longer be a nation dependent on loan assistance. We can also no longer be used as a tool of interference by other countries with strong economies," Wickremesinghe said without naming any country. In his address on Wednesday, Wickremesinghe also said that Sri Lanka would stay out of any big power rivalry, adding that the country must ensure the rivalry does not lead to conflict in the Indian Ocean.
He said Sri Lanka was open to the navies of all countries and there is no discrimination. If the navies want to come, we have no problem. They helped in the anti-piracy operations. But we don’t want a level of rivalry which will affect the security and the peace of our area. Whatever it be that we will not join any big power or take sides, we will stay out of it. And that’s why we want to ensure that the big powers and the rivalry don’t need to certainly lead to conflict in the Indian Ocean. That’s one thing we can’t afford, he said.
Sri Lanka granted the port access to the Chinese vessel from August 16 to 22.There were apprehensions in New Delhi about the possibility of the Chinese vessel’s tracking systems attempting to snoop on Indian defence installations while being on its way to the Sri Lankan port.
India last month hit back at China for alleging that it was “interfering" in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, firmly telling Beijing that what Colombo needs now was “support, not unwanted pressure or unnecessary controversies" to serve another country’s agenda. In his address, Wickremesinghe also said that if we lose a good security system, our future will be destroyed and the world situation and geopolitics will turn very badly.
Pointing out that it is not good for the country, the President also said that as a country, 2030 has been focused on security. He explained that Sri Lanka can be used by terrorist groups to launch an attack against a third party and preventing such terrorist attacks will be a major challenge that Sri Lanka will have to face in the future.
Wickremesinghe said peace needs to be established in the country and expects to reach a final settlement with the Tamils within the next few months. He also emphasised that plans should be made to open the Indian Ocean region to the world, ensuring its security and creating a powerful Asia.
The president also pointed out that efforts should be made to make Sri Lanka a center of maritime commerce by affirming freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean region.