February 27, 2023
Thank you very much for the warm welcome. I particularly want to thank and recognize the General Sir John Kotelawala Defense University for hosting this event, and our conference organizers, Dr. Harinda Vidanage, Dr. Sanath de Silva, and Lt Col L.R. Amarasekara of KDU’s Department of Strategic Studies for their hard work in bringing us all together. I am especially gratified to see all the KDU students here today as you represent a future where Sri Lanka is more secure and prosperous.
Excellencies, participants, Vice Chancellor Major General Milinda Peiris: almost a year ago we met in this same venue at a conference to discuss how the Biden-Harris administration was charting a new course forward in the Indo-Pacific. I outlined how the five core elements of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, or IPS, encompassed our shared vision for an Indo-Pacific that is Free and Open, Prosperous, Connected, Resilient, and Secure.
I noted that while this strategy is not a military or security alliance, it does include taking a hard look at behavior by countries that undermines our shared values. And I described the IPS as “our” vision for the Indo-Pacific because I believe that this vision is shared by my country and other countries in the region, including Sri Lanka. I see a number of colleagues from the diplomatic corps here; many countries have their own Indo pacific strategies with many shared values. And to be clear, it’s never about choosing countries but choosing values.
It is great to be here with you again to discuss the IPS at its one-year anniversary and to launch a publication that includes various discussions and papers from that conference a year ago. The title of the publication, “A Shared Vision for the Indo-Pacific,” reflects the fact that the IPS encompasses a vision for the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to including remarks offered at the conference, the publication also includes some of the key policy papers written by panelists who joined the discussion last year.
Now I should note that the views in those papers are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States or of KDU. Still, I would like to highlight some points from just a few of the papers.
Chulanee Attanayake stresses the importance of the Indo-Pacific region in her paper, describing it as “a key theatre of engagement in the 21st century.” The United States National Security Strategy, which was published in October of last year, echoes this point, noting that the “Indo-Pacific fuels much of the world’s economic growth and will be the epicenter of 21st century geopolitics…No region will be of more significance to the world.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that what happens in the Indo-Pacific can impact the entire globe and this particularly applies to Sri Lanka, which as we all know, sits next to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. That is no small responsibility. As Ganeshan Wignaraja points out in his paper, “the Indian Ocean’s transformation into one of the world’s busiest East-West trade and industrial corridors on the back of Asia’s global rise is a developmental success story of the 21st century. Maritime trade in the Indian Ocean carries two-thirds of global oil shipments and a third of global bulk cargo.”
In addition to this month being the one-year anniversary of the IPS, it is also the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Sri Lanka. The relationship between our two countries is broad and deep, and at its very heart is our shared commitment to People, Progress, and Partnership. As George Cooke emphasizes in his paper, this relationship also includes a commitment to shared democratic values. Cooke states that “the future of U.S.-Sri Lankan relations rests firmly in the democratic arena. It is to the advantage of both countries that democratic values have been long entrenched in their respective systems and need to be relied upon at all times.” No doubt democracies can be messy at times, but the core foundations of a democracy- checks and balances, independent institutions, free and fair elections, make a country stronger.
Earlier this month, one of the State Department’s highest-ranking officials, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, visited Colombo for discussions in which we reinforced our commitment as a bilateral partner across a broad spectrum of shared interests.
In 2022 alone, the United States invested over $2 billion in foreign assistance for the Indo-Pacific region and plans to allocate billions more in 2023. This builds upon the total of $11.5 billion we have invested in the Indo-Pacific region since 2018. Notably, here in Sri Lanka, we have announced nearly $270 million in new U.S. support since last June to bolster Sri Lanka’s economy and help ensure that children have food at school and that farmers have the fertilizer they need for successful crops. We are just about to welcome another shipment of TSP fertilizer to Sri Lanka in the coming weeks, that will be here in time ahead of the Yala season.
Now let me take a few minutes to broadly outline how we are doing in accomplishing our shared vision for an Indo-Pacific that is Free and Open, Prosperous, Connected, Resilient, and Secure.
A year ago, I noted that a “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific is one where there is freedom of navigation for ships across the open seas. As I mentioned earlier, this is especially critical for Sri Lanka given its location. Freedom of navigation allows Sri Lanka to effectively leverage its geostrategic position and has helped the Colombo Port to become one of the busiest in the region. And that is why the United States’ promotion of freedom of navigation helps support a free and open Indo-Pacific and directly aligns with Sri Lanka’s interests.
When I spoke at the conference last year, I noted that Secretary Blinken has described freedom as “the ability to write your future and have a say in what happens in your community and your country.” Now, over the past year we’ve seen how Moscow’s senseless invasion of Ukraine has attacked this most basic international principle of freedom and sovereignty, which is why the United States has stood with the people of Ukraine against this brutal act of aggression and will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine.
In the past year, the United States has also worked closely with partners throughout the Indo-Pacific to ensure the region remains open and accessible by promoting democracy, fair rule of law, free and open media, and a vibrant community of civil society organizations, schools and universities, and people across the region.
Our IPS also includes a commitment to driving Indo-Pacific prosperity. I think we can all agree that working together to build a prosperous Indo-Pacific is more critical now than ever when we consider the economic challenges Sri Lanka is currently facing. And we are also reminded that good economic governance and good political governance go hand in hand. So let me be clear: the United States is Sri Lanka’s partner and stands with Sri Lanka as it navigates through this difficult time.
The United States is Sri Lanka’s largest single country export market, accounting for nearly $2.8 billion of the $11.9 billion in goods Sri Lanka exports annually — with this number growing even during Covid — and Sri Lankan companies exporting to the United States accounting for more than 180,000 Sri Lankan jobs. That’s why the United States is fully committed to supporting Sri Lanka as it navigates the process of obtaining support from the International Monetary Fund — and I hope we can very quickly see a commitment on specific and credible financing assurances from all the major countries invested in Sri Lanka’s future to help Sri Lanka get back on the path to economic recovery.
I would also note that while Sri Lanka’s natural resources and entrepreneurial spirit create enormous economic potential, to fully realize this potential it’s critical to have a business environment that is transparent and fully inclusive. Because beyond immediate economic recovery, the longer term open investment climate will be key to lasting prosperity. This is what US Companies and foreign companies tell me all the time. That is why the United States is also committed to support policies that strengthen financial institutions and public finances, foster sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and help attract more international investments.
More broadly, in the past year we’ve helped drive regional prosperity by deepening our economic engagement in the region and provided an affirmative model for economic cooperation through the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. In May 2022, President Biden launched IPEF with 13 regional partners, representing 40 percent of global GDP, to set an affirmative vision for economic cooperation and to address the major challenges of the 21st century, including supply chain resilience, digital transformation, and a clean energy transition.
Just last month, the United States and Japan co-hosted the fifth Indo-Pacific Business Forum, convening over 1,000 virtual and 270 in-person participants comprised of senior officials and business leaders in Tokyo, Japan, to build connections and partnerships, exchange best practices, and stimulate innovative thinking on issues such as supply chains, clean energy, and digital infrastructure. And the United States will also serve as host of APEC later this year, around the theme “Creating a Resilient and Sustainable Future for All,” advancing practical economic policies as the region emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and collectively seeks to address supply chain shocks, struggling health systems, food insecurity, and climate change.
Economic growth also calls for us to continue to build connections within and beyond the Indo-Pacific. But connections between the United States and Sri Lanka run far deeper than just economic ties. For seventy-five years our two countries have had a strong relationship: for seventy of those years the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright program has supported over 1,100 senior researchers, professors, and students to travel between our countries on scholarly exchanges and for more than sixty of those years, USAID has been here supporting the people of Sri Lanka to improve their country’s development pathway through more than $2 billion in U.S. assistance. We even provide training to the next generation of Sri Lankan leaders through our amazing Youth Forum who gathered in person from across the country just a few weeks ago, and English language training to high school-aged students across the country, and so much more.
We’ve also worked broadly to build connections within and beyond the region, strengthening and partnering with multi-government organizations, including the launch of the Partners in the Blue Pacific, deepening our relationship with ASEAN, partnering with Japan to co-host the fifth Indo-Pacific Business Forum (IPBF), and working together with allies and partners through our long-standing relationships as well as new formats such as the Quad and the U.S.-EU Indo-Pacific Consultations.
As we’ve learned during the past few years, collaboration is key to building “Resiliency.” And as we face the global challenge of climate change, we will all need to work together. That’s why the United States is partnering with Sri Lanka in programs that encourage the deployment of renewable energy and increase Sri Lanka’s ability to adapt to climate change in ways that contribute to sustained, inclusive, market-based growth.
Regionally, we’ve promoted resiliency by providing over 274 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and helping partners prepare for future health emergencies, through joint initiatives such as the Indo-U.S. Vaccine Action Program and support for the ASEAN Emergency Operations Center. We are also mobilizing billions of dollars in clean energy, clean air, and climate resilience projects throughout the region including through Clean Power Asia, the U.S.-India Strategic Clean Energy Partnership, and the South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy.
A key component of our bilateral relationship has been, and continues to be, a strong security partnership. As threats and challenges evolve, our security approach must also evolve. But, regardless of the we face, our greatest strength is, and will continue to be, the alliances and partnerships which support our Indo-Pacific vision. Our bilateral relationship is strengthened each time we conduct an exercise together, exchange subject matter experts on issues such as maritime security, disaster relief and logistics, or transfer critical equipment and platforms.
Just last month we held our Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, or CARAT, exercises. CARAT is the largest bilateral military engagement between the U.S. and Sri Lanka and one that we in the U.S. consider critical to the security of the Indian Ocean Region. I was of course particularly excited to see the Sri Lanka Navy Ships GAJABAHU and VIJAYABAHU participate in the exercise. Both ships are U.S. donations, now proudly in the hands of Sri Lankans — the VIJAYABAHU was just commissioned in a beautiful ceremony last November and sailed here in one of the longest voyages in the history of the Sri Lankan navy — and is a testament to our commitment to Sri Lanka’s maritime security and sovereignty.
It was great to see how CARAT contributed to the deepening of ties in so many diverse ways. For example, our militaries conducted water purification training to help Sri Lanka ensure that its’ citizens will have access to clean drinking water in the event of a natural disaster. We also held an important Women Peace and Security event where service members from both countries had the opportunity to address the many ways that women are increasingly making an impact in the military domain.
To help illustrate the breadth of our security relationship, I might note that later this year we will be working with Sri Lanka on an environmental security conference where the links between security and climate change will be discussed and how we can work together more in this critical area.
For three-quarters of a century, we have nurtured the relationship between our countries as it has strengthened and grown. As that growth continues — through large-scale bilateral military exercises like CARAT and through events like this where we come together to share information and ideas — I am confident we will see the emergence of a stronger and more resilient Sri Lanka, a Sri Lanka that is increasingly capable of protecting its sovereignty and developing strong institutions that will enable prosperity for all Sri Lankan people.
When talk about sovereignty, I talk about respect. The United States is committed in the long term to work with our allies and partners to make that vision, that vision of respect, a reality. Many countries and peoples in the Indo-Pacific share our vision for the region, and when we work together, we can build a better future together.
The United States knows that by working together with our partners, we can together ensure a prosperous and secure future for all countries and communities in the Indo-Pacific. It is critical that we unite to address the Indo-Pacific’s historic challenges and seize the opportunities of the 21st century.
Before I close my remarks I’d like to say how pleased I am to be joined here today in offering remarks by two very distinguished colleagues, Major General Milinda Peiris, KDU’s Vice Chancellor who has been a driving force behind organizing this event, and Rear Admiral (retired) Peter Gumataotao, Director of the Director of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. DKI-APCSS has provided training opportunities to hundreds of members of Sri Lanka’s security personnel, and in doing so played an important role in our strong security partnership.
I opened my remarks by saying that we share a common vision for the Indo-Pacific. It’s a vision of respect and shared values. I hope that these remarks have outlined that vision and, perhaps most importantly, shared some ideas about what a partnership for a Free and Open, Prosperous, Connected, Resilient, and Secure Indo-Pacific can achieve.
Here’s to the next 75 years of our work together focused on People, Progress, and Partnership.