Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean Rim : Challenges and opportunities for region

The global political and economic order is beginning to aggressively impact our region. It may effectively alter the balance of power and cordiality, especially within the South Asian neighborhood. 

Indian Ocean Rim Association

Sri Lanka is the designated chairperson for the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) from 2023 to 2025. and CSO and the Council of Ministers meetings were held in Colombo from October 9 to 11. Emerging from a severe economic crisis, Sri Lanka presents a symbol of resilience in successfully overcoming the negatives it underwent. Today Sri Lanka is able to host all of the IORA members to participate in the conference, symbolizing the goodwill and confidence she enjoys in the Ocean Rim and beyond.

Anatomy of an island

A land known by many a name to the world systems located to the east and west of this island, its history is essentially a story of trans-oceanic connectivity. It is a story of how this island came to evolve its unique personality due to the convergence of multiple streams of people, cultures, languages, religions, ethnicities and technologies. It also represents a vibrant dynamic of authentic multiple histories of the Sri Lankan mosaic. The historical saga of Sri Lanka, an island situated in a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean Rim, could not be inscribed otherwise in the annals of history and most certainly not without the story of the sea – a story of nurtured reciprocity as one of the most valued “ports of call” in antiquity.

The island of Sri Lanka is also known in history by different names, including Tambapanni, Lanka, Taprobane, Ilam, Serendib, Ceilo, Ceylon and eventually Sri Lanka or the ‘Resplendent Island”. It was the Indian Ocean that nurtured the personality of Sri Lanka and shaped its landscape and cultural scape since pre-historic times. It is also the Indian Ocean that binds us to the larger oceanic scape and the communities of the Indian Ocean Rim with a common thread. The ocean is also the greatest repository that gifted the line of communication and resources going back to pre-4000 BCE Its relationship with the ocean is an interdependent factor which is mainly due to the centrality of our location in the Indian Ocean and the commonality shared by its resident communities. 

This strategic location is valued even to this day as noted in the Integrated Country Strategy: Sri Lanka. US State Department 2022. “Positioned at the geographic and political heart of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is the epicenter of the 21st century struggle for regional influence. Situated between the Persian Gulf and Red Sea to the west and the Straits of Malacca and Sunda to the east, Sri Lanka is arguably the most strategically located maritime nation in the region. More than 60,000 ships – including two-thirds of the world’s seaborne crude oil, half of its container ships, and all U.S. Navy vessels passing between the 5th and 7th Fleets – annually transit Sri Lankan waters”.


IORA members and dialogue partners

Sri Lanka as Chairperson of IORA

In 2023 October Sri Lanka assumed the IORA Chair and presented its theme as Strengthening Regional Architecture: Reinforcing Indian Ocean Identity”. This presents Sri Lanka’s vision and mission for IORA and its partner countries. Based on the above agenda, the meetings will focus on sustainable economic growth, environmental stability, management of marine resources, maritime security, Blue Economic Opportunities, Disaster resilience and climate change, Technical and vocational education and training promoting industry sector skills councils.

Sri Lanka occupied the Chair in 2005 and again has the opportunity to provide its leadership towards a sustainable coexistence to one of the largest seascapes. Its Member States are rich in cultural diversity and complex collections of languages, religions, traditions, arts, and cuisine including a wide variety of valuable natural resources. In the course of these two years, Sri Lanka will establish its own benchmark and charter a road map inviting its partner countries to join hands in its endeavours to strengthen the regional structure and its identity.

The concept of IORA originated with the vision of President Nelson Mandela during his visit to India in 1995. His vision encapsulated the “concept of an Indian Ocean Rim for socio-economic cooperation”. It was realized with the founding of IORA in 1997 as an inter-governmental organization formed to foster regional economic cooperation.

Six Priority Areas were identified during India's period as Chair (2011-2013):

• Maritime Safety and Security (MSS);

• Fisheries Management (FM);

• Academic, Science and Technology Co-operation (ASTC);

• Trade and Investment Facilitation (TIF);

• Disaster Risk Management (DRM);

• Tourism and Cultural Exchanges (TCE).

 Blue Economy and Women’s empowerment are recognized as additional priority areas

IORA also devised flagship initiatives such as The Indian Ocean Dialogue (IOD)The Somalia and Yemen Development Program (SYDP);The IORA-Nelson Mandela “Be the Legacy Programme”; The IORA-UN Women Women’s Economic Empowerment Project; IORA Sustainable Development Program (ISDP). Of these, the Indian Ocean Dialogue is held annually as a track 1.5 event.

 Ground realities

 Sri Lanka needs to maintain the overall parameters as per the baseline set by the final CSO meeting (13-14 July 2023).  These need to be treated as Outreach and Connectivity programs. Engagements need to be undertaken as a supporting role for already established IORA initiatives/programs

In its engagement for the next two years, there are some ground realities Sri Lanka needs to keep in mind. A sizable number of countries are larger in scale, economically strong and politically big global players. We also need to be conscious of other World Systems (Atlantic and Pacific) beyond the IOR and extend goodwill strategic preparations to deal with such realities. As much as Sri Lanka is an independent sovereign state, there are certain imperatives that will guide us and maintain its status quo and goodwill as a small power entity.

We had to face both, external and internal dual impediments. Big powers were attracted to Sri Lanka due to its strategic location on Sri Lanka and often attempts to reassert its influence over Sri Lanka. In our view, this is also an effort to reestablish its control over the Indian Ocean.    We projected our country to the international community in the post-war period from a position of strength and firmly stood our ground independently with dignity.  Sri Lanka needs to reverse this situation and freshly relook at our international dealings as a partner on an equal footing with larger powers.  

Sri Lanka needs to re-negotiate its position in the international sphere. Historically, Sri Lanka played the role of an economic and cultural portal that increased its value during the colonial period as an import–export center to the world.  Its unenviable central location in the Indian Ocean Rim has provided this island with a strategic point coveted by international powers. As such, the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) and its landscape are not an isolated entity. It is valued with a high premium placed on it. The interwoven power play involving the USA, India, Russia and China in the IOR is a case in point. Sri Lanka is in the middle of power play crosscurrents subject to inherent contradictory dynamics, both, positive and negative.  

There are other ground realities facing Sri Lanka. Situating oceanic studies: We need to recognize the ocean as a resource base (providing water, salt, sand, and other minerals; faunal & botanical resources; bio-medical elements etc.) vital to us. It is also a buffer regulating climate. The ocean facilitates the movement of people, cultures and resources, technologies, languages, and economies recognizing trading portals, exchanges and markets along sea routes. We need to understand the development of nautical technology from prehistory to the present day. The ocean is not a standalone entity, devoid of understanding ocean–hinterland synergy. It organically shapes coastal and hinterland landscapes. 

The ocean also sustains multiple bio-spheres (underwater, surface water, lagoon-estuary- deltaic conditions). It also provides us with aesthetic/poetic inspiration as much as its actions also impact us in a destructive manner (e.g. tsunami)Hence, the application of the ocean through oceanographic studies becomes a vital need. One needs to recognize that IOR countries form an unbroken interconnected crescent of communication and cultural zones from the historic period. Importantly, the Indian Ocean is strategically located between World Systems to its west and east, making it an assimilative zone.   

Broader oceanic scape

Indian Ocean acquired regional identity from the Colonial and post-colonial periods. It was a zone of imperial conflicts and an area of major power tussles in the post-colonial period. We also need to recognize larger land masses as macro-regions, which are better endowed with strategic resources, the possession of firepower and big players in the international arena. As against this, micro-regions or, individual islands and Island Clusters (a collective) are found. These entities evolved their own identity and dynamic of economic and political interaction with the mainland. At the IORA’s 9th IORA Indian Ocean Dialogue (IOD), held in Zanzibar, Tanzania (22-23 May 2023) noted “Our coastal and island states of the Indian Ocean Basin resonate on key IORA priorities in promoting and strengthening our collective blue economy aspirations, as well as addressing the regional ocean governance strategy”. This runs parallel to a voice from the Pacific. The (BOE) or Biketawa Declaration was recognized by the Pacific Island Forum and agreed upon  eight core values, including good governance, liberty of the individual, democratic processes and indigenous rights and a sustainable environment. Small power countries e.g. Sri Lanka and the Maldives (and other Indian Ocean islands) may take a leaf from the Biketawa Declaration.   

Contextualizing and Strategizing Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean a cross-pollinated land of convergence. Ancient material culture confirms the status of Sri Lanka as a major trading hub and exchange portal to multiple world systems in antiquity. We need therefore to negotiate from a position of strength nurtured by history within the global system and mainly with our neighborhood.

Evolving a Sri Lanka strategy

Sri Lanka needs to strategize itself as a small country power in the Indian Ocean. It needs to position itself as a country with sustainable stability while reserving the right to negotiate from a position of strength within the global system. Evolving a Sri Lanka strategy implies recharging its political economy (which is currently underway) and aspiring to be an Equal stakeholder and partner within the world order. Sri Lanka presents itself as a Non-aligned nation and a willingness to work with other countries on an equal basis, recognizing mutual benefit and mutual respect. We need to engage ourselves with Neighbourhood zones (and the need to map out these zones for mutually coordinated work). If we are not alert, it will result in the balkanization of Sri Lanka.

We therefore need to strategize a well-crafted outreach program for our engagement within the Indian Ocean Rim. Our foreign policy needs to be recognized as the long arm of the State; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is its essential catalyst. Our external relations are based on the protection of the territorial identity, independence and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. Hence, outreach to other IORA countries is based on equality, respect for independence and non-interference in internal affairs. Our external relations are guided by cooperation and essentially based on mutual respect and not a patron-client relationship. Sri Lanka needs to reach out to the world from this vantage point of strength and gently present its leadership among equals.  

Outreach & Connectivity programs 2023 - 2025

Sri Lanka needs to assert its leadership role and recognize its own oceanic vulnerability and make the best use of our own resources and assistance with partner countries.

From the Sri Lanka end for Oceanic studies, there are engagements through NARA (National Aquatic Resource Agency), the Sri Lanka Navy and Geological Survey Department, the Department of Archaeology, the Ministry of Tourism and several other line ministries. We need to place on track a Regional framework for coastal vulnerability including an assessment and monitoring of sea level rise & storm surge prediction, sound pollution impacting oceanic life, tsunami warning and mitigation systems. This effort needs to be taken at a high level with partner support on Ocean observation and digital data management. This is especially true in relation to the Blue Economy, marine diversity and conservation, ocean ecosystems and human health. NARA and the Navy are able to collaborate with partner countries and share expertise on oceanography, hydrographic surveys, marine biology, beach profile and coastal landscape evolution, mangroves / estuary-deltaic marshland studies, sea level monitoring, ocean acidification, lagoon management and pollutants of microplastic. In addition, raw material Extraction (connecting plate boundaries) coastline and deep-sea sources, sea grass cultivation, lagoon and estuary sea life cultivation, oceanic and marine tourism and marine archaeology training programs could be listed as shared outreach programs with special reference to the blue economy initiatives. Equally, the vulnerability of deep-sea cables traversing the Indian Ocean cargo and seaborne crude oil shipping lanes needs to be monitored and given special attention.

Maritime security and challenges

Current engagements or priority areas of IORA are global trade, the Importance of sea lanes, energy and food security.  These overlap between maritime security and national security; marine security and environmental securityoffshore security (OSC) and national defence.

The focal points of OSC are: Preserving the freedom of the sea; facilitating and defending oceanic commerce; maintaining good governance at sea

to neutralize maritime interstate disputes; maritime terrorism to eliminate piracy, trafficking narcotics, humans, antiquities, artifacts and gun running; Illegal fishing; and environmental crime,e.g., oil spill near Sri Lanka.

Of these Sri Lanka had and continues to have its share of maritime terrorism, interstate dispute/illegal fishing, trafficking narcotics, humans and artifacts including environmental crimes (e.g. oil spills). It is understood that fisheries management should be at the core of the new maritime policy, which IORA should strengthen and develop to build mutual understanding among all decision-makers and main players of the maritime industry. Effective decision-making must also integrate gender issue and division of labour (sustaining factor), and environmental concerns into maritime policies as maritime pollution and plastic debris, plays a major role in the decline of fish stocks.

Way forward towards a shared secured future

All members of IORA need to prosper together. We are also stakeholders of the larger oceanic family represented by several regional organizations. As such, we also need to be strategic partners. Our partnership and alignment revolve around the protection of the seascape embracing our lands. The engagement of the global power blocks and their aspirations in the Indian Ocean, including the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea, has a direct impact on peaceful coexistence. We are now witnessing a sharply evolving competitive spirit that is setting the tone for the future of the Indian Ocean Rim. The global political and economic order is beginning to aggressively impact our region. It may effectively alter the balance of power and cordiality, especially within the South Asian neighborhood.   

A shared secured future finds expression in the “blue economy” or the ocean industry. The Blue Economy envisages the sustainable harvesting of our oceanic resources. In 2017 this idea was narrowed down to the Bay of Bengal by Abdullahel Bari from Bangladesh calling it “Our Ocean and the Blue Economy: Opportunities and Challenges” with special reference to Bangladesh and all oceanic countries facing security risks and over-exploitation of aquatic resources. In 2019 David Brewster suggested an Indian Ocean Security Forum as a regional agenda for Geo-Environmental Security Challenges. Such security risks may spill across geophysical boundaries and trigger conflict zones. 

An allied opportunity is seen with the Tri-continental Maritime Security Cooperation (since 2013) along with Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives; the quadrilateral cooperation featuring India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, including new bilateral connectivity between Bangladesh and Myanmar, that holds greater expectations for the future.   

Most recent discussions also highlight the need to recognize the Bay of Bengal as a "Zone of Peace" so as to neutralize big-power competition and also as a strategic philosophy on oceanic studies. It is useful to recall the spirit of the Law of the Sea; also Michal Vatiokatis’s work on conflict resolution with special reference to ocean fronts and important points raised at the Galle Dialogue in Sri Lanka.

As Sri Lanka welcomes partner kinsmen of the Indian Oceanic family to its shores, we reach out to them with goodwill and in a spirit of trust and cordiality for a productive tenure of our engagement with the member states and its oceanic scape.

(The author is Executive Director General IORA – Sri Lanka Secretariat, former High Commissioner to India & Bangladesh; Emeritus Professor. University of Peradeniya. Sri Lanka. Views are personal.)

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Sri Lanka, an island with a rich history, epitomizes trans-oceanic connectivity. Shaped by diverse people, cultures, and technologies, it is a mosaic of histories in the Indian Ocean Rim. Known by various names, its centrality in the ocean has fostered a dynamic relationship, evident in its designation as a "port of call." The island's strategic location continues to be pivotal, influencing regional dynamics and global maritime activities, as highlighted by the US State <a href="">Department</a>
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