March 31, 2022
Thank you very much and hello to everyone who is joining today’s conference.
I particularly want to thank and recognize the General Sir John Kotelawala
Defense University (KDU) for hosting this timely discussion, and our conference organizers, Dr. Harinda Vidanage and Dr. Sanath de Silva, of KDU’s Department of Strategic Studies for their hard work in bringing us all together.
I also want to salute all the KDU students here today – You are the Future. And especially you young women who are security researchers, analysts, and interns. On this last day of Women’s history month, we must remember that we can’t talk about a Free and Open Indo-Pacific without women at the table.
Excellencies, distinguished panelists, participants, Vice Chancellor Major General Milinda Peiris, this discussion of our shared vision for the Indo-Pacific could not be more timely, as the Biden-Harris administration is charting our new course forward in the Indo-Pacific. Sri Lanka, with its key geostrategic location next to vital shipping lanes, has a key leadership role in the Indo-Pacific in which it should take real pride. Just last week, one of the State Department’s highest-ranking officials, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, visited Colombo and participated in a Partnership Dialogue with Sri Lanka in which we reinforced our commitment as a bilateral partner across a broad spectrum of shared interests.
Building on many decades of partnership across the region, our vision for an Indo-Pacific is one that is Free and Open, Connected, Prosperous, Resilient, and Secure. And I say “our” vision for the Indo-Pacific because I do believe this vision is shared by my country and other countries in the region, including Sri Lanka. As Indo-Pacific nations, we share many common interests and jointly engage in many common efforts to advance these shared interests.
Last month, the Biden administration announced our new Indo-Pacific Strategy with five core elements: advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific; promoting broad-based regional prosperity; forging stronger connections to build collective capacity; building regional resilience to transnational threats; and bolstering Indo-Pacific security. Now this strategy is not a military or security alliance, but does include taking a hard look at behavior by countries that undermines our shared values.
I know that these ideas – Free and Open, Prosperous, Connected, Resilient, and Secure – might sound appealing but a little abstract. I’d like to take a few minutes to elaborate on each of those ideas in turn, and explain how they align with our shared interests. In doing so, I hope that it will be clear how these ideas and our collaborative efforts come together in this shared vision.
Let’s start with the concept of a “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific. Secretary Blinken explained that “Freedom is about the ability to write your future and have a say in what happens in your community and your country, no matter who you are or who you know.” In the past month, we’ve had a terrible reminder of the critical importance of freedom as Moscow’s brutal actions in Ukraine have tarnished and undermined the most basic international principles that are vital to peace, security, and sovereignty. These principles are the fundamental rules that underpin the international order that together we have built, sustained, and adapted when needed.
Secretary Blinken noted that freedom also means that goods and ideas can flow freely across “cyberspace, and the open seas.” In today’s world cyberspace and cybersecurity are increasingly important and, as part of our vision for the Indo-Pacific, the United States looks to coordinate with partners to ensure an open and secure internet and to implement a framework for responsible behavior in cyber space.
Ensuring that goods can flow freely across the open seas is especially critical for Sri Lanka, which as we all know sits next to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes through which about half the world’s container ships and two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments pass. This means that Sri Lanka plays a critical role in the health of world trade.
But shipping depends on seas being free and open, with “freedom of navigation” for all ships. Without freedom of navigation, and all that goes into it, Sri Lanka would be unable to effectively leverage its geostrategic position and its port investments. And that is why the United States’ robust freedom of navigation program to support a free and open Indo-Pacific directly aligns with Sri Lanka’s interests.
And that’s why advancing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is part of our shared vision.
The second core element of our shared vision is to work together to build a “Prosperous” Indo-Pacific. This is especially needed more than ever with the economic challenges Sri Lanka and the region are facing.
In 2020, the United States conducted $1.75 trillion in two-way trade with the Indo-Pacific region, supporting more than five million jobs across the region. Our two nations are essential economic partners as 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 account for more than 180,000 Sri Lankan jobs.
Sri Lanka’s natural resources and spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship generate tremendous economic potential. However, to fully unlock this potential it’s critical to have a transparent and inclusive economic environment that leverages Sri Lanka’s assets and attracts private sector foreign investment. We are committed to collaboration in supporting the development of policies to strengthen financial institutions and public finances, to foster sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and to attract international investments, including from the United States.
We’ve backed up this commitment with significant resources through the U.S. Development Finance Corporation, the United States Agency for International Development, and other agencies that promote infrastructure and human capital development. For example, the Development Finance Corporation has increased its active exposure from less than $20 million to nearly $300 million in 2021, primarily through loans to private Sri Lankan banks that use the funding for small-and-medium businesses with an emphasis on women-owned businesses.
The October 2021 Indo-Pacific Business Forum, co-hosted by the United States and India, brought together more than 2,300 business and government leaders and showcased nearly $7 billion in new private sector projects. Looking forward, we need to keep striving to support Sri Lanka’s path to inclusive and sustainable economic development and financial stability and to develop more commercial deals and foreign investment in Sri Lanka.
Supporting the development of green energy projects will be key for building sustainable and inclusive prosperity. Our vision for the Indo-Pacific includes working with partners to help transition to a clean energy future. In Sri Lanka, USAID has a five-year, $18.9 million energy partnership with the Government of Sri Lanka to help make the power sector market-based, secure, reliable, and sustainable. The project facilitates access to capital and attracts investments to increase deployment of renewable energy and advanced technologies. It also expands the private sector’s role in the power system, enhances competitiveness, and encourages adoption of energy efficiency standards.
And that’s how we build a Prosperous Indo-Pacific together.
Next, I’d like to discuss how we are looking to forge “Connections” to support our Indo-Pacific vision.
Individual and collective economic security will, to a large extent, be based on our ability to continue to build connections within and beyond the Indo-Pacific. This is particularly evident when you look at supply chains between the countries. Our Indo-Pacific vision stresses the need to continue to work with our partners to advance resilient and secure supply chains while removing the barriers and improving transparency.
But the connections we forge together are much more than purely economic connections.
I mentioned the emphasis on women-owned businesses for DFC loans because gender equality and women’s empowerment is an important component of our commitment to inclusive economic growth and social cohesion. This is a cross-cutting theme of many of the goals we are looking at today. It also includes promoting the safety of women and girls in conflict and crisis as well as the meaningful participation of women in efforts to prevent conflict and promote peace which is why I’m so happy to see many of the women here today.
We’re very proud of the 60-year relationship between USAID and the people of Sri Lanka through which USAID has granted close to $2 billion to support sustainable and inclusive development. And we’re celebrating the 70th anniversary of our US – Sri Lanka Fulbright program this year, which has supported over 1,100 senior researchers, professors, and students to travel between our countries on scholarly exchanges. Working with the Ministry of Education, we also provide programs that support all facets of educational development in Sri Lanka including supporting school nutrition programs for primary school children, English teaching resources, workshops and training opportunities for teachers and English language proficiency activities to strengthen the use of English language among teachers and students.
Through our Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, we’ve awarded almost $1.3 million to support more than a dozen projects that preserve and celebrate Sri Lanka’s rich cultural heritage. This month alone, I launched a $265,000 program for the conservation of the Royal Palace and Archaeological Museum of Kandy and had the privilege of presiding over a ceremony to close out a separate project that worked to preserve endangered indigenous music and dance traditions. I believe these are all examples of real and deep partnership; the kind of partnership that will contribute more to long-term, inclusive, sustainable capacity development than high profile, but economically dubious, infrastructure projects.
Looking more broadly, we will continue to support and empower allies and partners and work together to pool our collective strengths in groupings such as the “Quad.” Quad members – which include Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – share a collective commitment to democracy, peace, security, and prosperity in the region. In the first-ever Ministerial Joint Statement last month, Quad Foreign Ministers described concrete efforts to pursue action on fulfilling the Quad’s pledge to donate over 1.3 billion COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2022; to deepen cooperation on maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, building people-to-people ties, and more. As one of the ministers said at the meeting, “The Quad is all about what we are for, not what we are against.”
And that’s what it means to work together to forge a Connected Indo-Pacific.
As we’ve learned one thing during COVID, collaboration is key to building “Resiliency.” This is why the United States is the most generous donor to COVAX, the global initiative to supply Covid vaccines. We are also working closely with Sri Lanka, having donated 3.4 million vaccines to Sri Lanka which builds on close to $18 million to support Sri Lanka’s response and recovery to the pandemic.
One of our most significant long-term global challenges is, of course, the impact of climate change. As President Rajapaksa remarked at the United Nations General Assembly meeting, as “devastating as the consequences of the pandemic have been to humanity, the world faces the even greater challenge of climate change in the decades to come.”
Building climate change resiliency will call for us all to work together. That’s why the United States is committed to doubling our public international financing to help developing nations tackle the climate crisis. With our added support and increased private capital and other donor support, we look to meet the goal of mobilizing $100 billion to support climate action in developing nations.
Through USAID, 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.
And that’s what a Resilient Indo-Pacific can accomplish.
The fifth core element of our Indo-Pacific Strategy is bolstering regional “Security.” As threats evolve, and as we face new non-traditional threats, our security approach must also evolve. But, regardless of the threats we face, our greatest strength is, and will continue to be, the alliances and partnerships which support our Indo-Pacific vision.
Proactive and engaged navies are an important component of this. This is why it is no surprise that, just in the past month we’ve seen a significant number of ship visits and joint exercises here in Sri Lanka, including with the Indian, U.S., Japanese, French, and Bangladesh navies. Sri Lanka also joined in the multinational exercise “Milan” with countries from across the Indo-Pacific, including the United States. This exercise enhanced skills in multilateral large force operations at sea and, as one participant noted, provided “an opportunity for like-minded navies sharing a common vision of a more stable, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific, to operate and train alongside one another.”
Sri Lanka has amazing marine resources but, as we all know, the marine environment is facing many challenges around the world including: illegal, unreported, and unregulated, or IUU, fishing; smuggling; and even piracy. That’s why both Sri Lanka and the United States are part of international agreements to combat these challenges. It’s also why the United States, the Sri Lanka Navy, and the Sri Lanka Air Force are partners to improve the maritime domain awareness capabilities of both services, and facilitate their working together on maritime patrols and interdictions. Through this partnership, and with vessels provided to Sri Lanka by the United States, Sri Lanka notched the largest drug seizure in its history in March 2020. This partnership and these vessels also helped protect Sri Lanka’s precious marine resources after incidents such as the MT New Diamond and MV Pearl-Xpress fires.
And we are continuing to work together in partnerships like this to improve maritime domain awareness and prevent and reduce the impact of future disasters. To this end, the United States recently transferred a third high endurance cutter to Sri Lanka and there are currently 130 Sri Lankan sailors in Seattle, Washington preparing this vessel for her voyage to Sri Lanka in the Spring of this year, the longest voyage in the history of the Sri Lankan navy.
That’s what a partnership for a Secure Indo-Pacific looks like.
Our vision for the Indo-Pacific recognizes that much of the planet’s future will be based on what happens in this region. This is why we have, and will continue to have, an enduring commitment to the Indo-Pacific, and to collaboration with our allies and partners in the region. And this is why Sri Lanka, located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, can act now to seize a leading role in this future.
I opened my remarks by saying that we share a common vision for the Indo-Pacific. 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.
Next, we’re fortunate to have our keynote address from my long-time friend and Huntington Beach resident Assistant Secretary Don Lu – but I don’t want to steal the moderator’s thunder so I won’t go through his entire biography.
Thank you so much for listening and best wishes for today’s conference.