Refining Mindset to address Transnational Maritime threats: A Review of the Decade delivered by Secretary / Foreign Affairs at the eGalle Dialogue 2019

Galle Dialogue 2019: “Refining Mindset to address Transnational Maritime threats: A Review of the Decade”

Banquet Speech by Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha
21 October 2019

Secretary, Ministry of Defence
Chief of Defence Staff
Visiting Commanders
Commanders of the Sri Lanka Navy and the Air Force
Distinguished delegates and guests

It is an honour for me to be here with you tonight, and I thank Vice Admiral Piyal de Silva for inviting me to deliver the Banquet Speech.

At the outset, allow me to extend my warm congratulations to the Sri Lanka Navy for once again organizing this forum, bringing together 148 participants from 54 countries and 17 International Organizations to deliberate on the safety and security in navigating the oceans.

It is fitting that Sri Lanka, which, as early as in 1971 spearheaded the Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IOPZ) proposal at the UN and promoted the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) in 1985 - at a time when few recognized the importance of these concepts or supported these processes - continues to remain in the forefront in further efforts to ensure Freedom of Navigation and the safety and security of the Sea Lanes of Communication in the Indian Ocean. These are essential pre-requisites not only in maintaining regional security and stability, but also crucial for the future prosperity of the region.

Since its inception in 2010, the Galle Dialogue has provided a vibrant forum to all stakeholders to contribute, interact and exchange expertise for the common good of seafaring in a wide variety of ways that would further our national interests and our shared common goals, to make the seas safer for all.

This year’s theme ‘Refining Mindset to address Transnational Maritime threats: A Review of the Decade’, encourages deeper reflection. It acknowledges that not only have things around us changed, but that there is also a need for us to change the way we perceive them. It gives us the opportunity to re-energize, re-evaluate and re-calibrate, if needed, and to re-set the agenda for what is bound to be a critical decade ahead.

Dynamics of the Indian Ocean Region

As the changing themes of this annual forum and its increasing relevance have indicated, the past decade has been particularly dynamic for the Indian Ocean region: it is clearly a region in transition. Home to 35% of the world’s population, it is increasingly considered the world’s economic and political centre of gravity. It has some of the most strategic choke points and its sea lanes of communication carry goods, people, and energy. Our oceans are rich in fish, minerals, petroleum resources, bio diversity and natural ports. The significant growth of Asian economies has transformed this region into a major artery of the global economy over the last three decades. The region’s littoral states accounted for 18.5% of global GDP last year. One of the world’s busiest and most critical trade corridors - carrying two-thirds of global oil shipments and a third of bulk cargo and hosting the most critical Sea Lanes of Communication, it directly impacts global trade and the economy. Given this context, the security of this body of water is important not only to its littoral states, but for the entire global community.

Traditional and Non-traditional threats

As the global significance of the Indian Ocean region rises, this vital maritime space is confronted with traditional and non-traditional security threats.

The traditional threats, including piracy, military presence and competition in the maritime region that could shift the balance of power, have evolved significantly. The region has also seen an increased vulnerability that arises from the expansion in shipping and ports, a significant naval build up, many geopolitical shifts, as well as competing political-economic-strategic frameworks and doctrines emanating from various powers wishing to extend their reach in the region. These are compounded by the non-traditional threats we confront, including maritime terrorism, climate change, IUU fishing, illegal immigration, smuggling of arms & drugs and modern piracy. With the multitude of attendant challenges brought about by climate change – including direct implications on food security, forced displacement, loss of habitats and livelihoods resulting in unplanned mass migration – the ocean will continue to be a theatre of action. As populations and economies continue to grow, we should anticipate that future challenges may arise over dwindling resources.

Addressing these complex threats effectively in a seemingly ungovernable expanse of the earth - the oceans - is indeed a mammoth task, which all littoral states must address collectively. Without consistently re-tuning our approaches and mindsets to meet the new, emerging and ever-evolving challenges, this task would seem all the more arduous.

The Indian Ocean region’s response

Despite these challenges, compared to some maritime regions, the Indian Ocean region enjoys a relative calm. There has been willingness to adhere to the rule of law and maintain freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. We can be also pleased that the region has continued to choose cooperation over conflict in the maritime domain, and disputes have been resolved through dialogue and adherence to international rules and norms, if one is to go by the several arbitration cases emanating from the region that have seen resolution in recent years. The rules-based order and dispute resolution mechanisms introduced by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international arrangements have contributed to this calm.

Nevertheless, vigilance is needed. We continue to be confronted by numerous risks and challenges. Transnational Maritime threats are foremost among these. In order to effectively deal with transnational maritime threats, greater maritime visibility is needed through data and information sharing arrangements. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) needs to be improved. This would assist countries to identify priority areas and the related technological innovation required.

Acts, particularly by non-state actors engaged in human smuggling, drug trafficking, sea piracy and terrorism may be better tackled with a mechanism to monitor a wider area of our oceans and share that information with likeminded entities both local and foreign. Combating piracy in the Indian Ocean is a case in point, where several initiatives that complement and support each other have been put in place. The several mechanisms that have been developed following successful meetings in this regard demonstrate the potential synergies that exist and illustrate the benefits of cooperation on maritime security and governance issues. The instruments range from soft law, non-binding approaches to hard law, legally binding treaty approaches on the one hand and practical cooperation efforts on the other. A great deal of work therefore has already been done. There are important lessons and experiences to draw from for the region.

Building an overarching architecture in the region

Even as we understand the problems, the absence of an overarching security architecture and institutional frameworks that address security issues of the region remains a serious drawback. Maritime security issues and challenges have not received proportionate attention in any of the existing Indian Ocean regional organizations.

While the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) stand out as two of the more prominent organizations that also deal with maritime issues in the region, their focus remains largely within the parameters of economic cooperation. However, in this context, we must welcome the finalization of a Work Plan by the First Meeting of IORA Maritime Safety and Security (MSS) Working Group chaired by Sri Lanka and held in Colombo on 8-9 August 2019 with the participation of 22 foreign delegates representing IORA member countries and representatives of the IORA Secretariat. We hope that this would allow IORA Member states to facilitate practical coordination with stakeholders to ensure sustainable economic development for all in a peaceful, safe and secure Indian Ocean. I am confident that the 19th IORA Council of Ministers’ Meeting in November in Abu Dhabi will build upon this Work Plan to ensure greater prosperity and security to our region.

Towards the goal of creating a possible overarching architecture for the region, Sri Lanka hosted the Track 1.5 Conference ‘The Indian Ocean: Defining our Future’ on 11-12 October 2018, with the participation of 300 senior government officials and think tank representatives from over 40 Indian Ocean littoral states and major maritime users. In his message to the Conference, President Maithripala Sirisena called on the forum of littoral states and the extra-regional maritime users to assist in preserving the essential characteristics of an open, free, fair and peaceful Indian Ocean. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was to impress on the gathering, that what is required is a shared understanding that benefits all, and addresses two core, interconnected issues related to the Indian Ocean: Freedom of Navigation and Freedom of Digital Connectivity.

The expectation is that the momentum created by the Track 1.5 Conference would graduate to a Ministerial level conference and contribute to the development of an international rules-based order, where there are established rules and principles, which operate on a common understanding of challenges and solutions in the Indian Ocean region.

Need for collective, practical solutions

However, while legal frameworks will lay the foundation in protection of the oceans, practical cooperation among countries is the first line of defense against various transnational maritime threats faced. In this context, I was struck by the Navy Commander’s comment this morning, that countries must get-together to find solutions beyond the legal intervention in the high seas, and that token joint naval exercises are no longer adequate.

We have hundreds of agencies among our nations who work on different areas in securing our oceans and coasts. They have information and technical expertise in specific areas. However, coordination among these entities has considerable room for improvement. Common information sharing mechanisms need to be developed at regional and global levels in order to encourage data sharing on the maritime domain. Whilst technology plays a critical role in preserving maritime security, it is also important for countries to compile and share information and analysis on maritime incidents and trends. Given the fact that many countries may not have adequate funding to invest in sophisticated monitoring mechanisms, regular exchange of data and analysis may be able to bridge the technology gap to a certain extent.

Policy response

It is evident that the maritime space of the Indian Ocean works on the basis of mutual dependency. This dependency promotes Freedom of Navigation and the safety and security of the Sea Lanes of Communication. In the face of challenges to safety and security we have seen how well littorals and extra regional partners have worked together.

However, it must be noted here that particular attention should be paid to the geopolitical and geostrategic framing of the Indian Ocean that is currently taking place. In these framings, the inherent role of the littorals must be recognized. It is necessary for the countries geographically located in this region, to play the leading role in deciding the future of the region.

We must keep in mind that while activities of Non State actors no doubt continue to threaten the security of the Indian Ocean, State actors must share in the blame for the instability that sometimes complicate our dealings with regard to the oceans.

In responding to these maritime issues confronting the Indian Ocean Region, it is necessary that policy makers and experts of the region adopt comprehensive and holistic approaches, which, while centrally serving our respective national interests, factor within it all other individual country interests and key international commitments and obligations. In the geostrategic contestations that arise that are extraneous to us, we must not be forced in to taking sides, but be allowed to work in collaboration with all, to reconcile competing interests.

I believe, this is true for Sri Lanka, as much as it is for any other Indian Ocean country.

I thank you.

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