October 16, 2023
Good morning! I am thrilled to be here and welcome you all today, especially our United States Institute of Peace colleagues, Nilanthi Samaranayake, Dr. Daniel Markey, Dr. Asfan-dyar Mir, who traveled from Washington, DC to join us. Also welcome to MFA Additional Secretary Yasoja Gunasekera and Professor Sanjay Chaturvedi. I also want to recognize my fellow colleagues from the diplomatic corps joining us today.
A special thanks to our conference organizers from the Regional Center for Strategic Studies, Professor Nayani Melegoda and Dr. George Cooke, along with the session chairs, for their determination in selecting the best of the abstracts to be showcased.
Finally, I want to applaud all our presenting authors. Your commitment to researching the most relevant of topics brings us one step closer to resolving a range of challenges facing the populations of South Asia and the Indian Ocean. We are all eager to learn more about your studies of environmental security, regional cooperation and governance, peace building, the blue economy, traditional trade, and ocean security.
Today’s students and scholars represent a diverse range of academic institutions in South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific region, such as India, Japan, Maldives, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka. They bring a wealth of expertise. Their research topics notably align with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy’s core principles, emphasizing our commitment to fostering a free, open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient Indo-Pacific region.
And what a week to hold this conference, on the heels of the Indian Ocean Rim Association Council of Ministers and the Galle Dialogue International Maritime Conference hosted by Sri Lanka. At IORA, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry spoke about promoting peace, unity & stability with an unwavering faith in multilateralism and diplomacy. And at the Galle Dialogue, President Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke about how to define the Indo Pacific in a new emerging world order and how it fits into either an economic or security construct.
No matter how we define it, as President Biden has said, the Indo-Pacific is a vast region with endless potential. And we all know that Sri Lanka can play a pivotal role in helping to shape the direction and development of areas such as maritime security, transnational trade, and regional connectivity, just to name a few. In addition, Sri Lanka prides itself in being a non-aligned, neutral country which can host and convene multilateral engagements involving any or all South Asian countries and also even connecting to Southeast and Northeast Asia as well. Having spent a majority of my career in Southeast and Northeast Asia, it was only when I came to Sri Lanka that I realized what many already know – that Sri Lanka punches above its weight; it sometimes just doesn’t know it. That means getting out of crisis mode, making sustainable and inclusive reforms. That means not just reacting to initiatives or policies, but also Sri Lanka having the confidence and ambition to untap its own potential to actively offer something valuable to the countries in the region – its experience, innovative thinking, its human resource capacity.
Regional strategies and multilateral platforms provide countries with shared values and goals the chance to unite their voices, creating a powerful collective influence across the wider Indo-Pacific region. Some great nearby examples include BIMSTEC, SAARC, ASEAN, and IORA—of which Sri Lanka recently assumed the chairmanship. These collaborative initiatives inspire us to celebrate the diversity of the region and demonstrate that geopolitics does not have to be a zero-sum game. This doesn’t mean one should try to please every country in every foreign policy decision. It does mean taking ownership of your sovereignty and making clear eyed decisions.
I want you to know that the United States recognizes and respects Sri Lanka’s aspirations and objectives. We recognize Sri Lanka as an equal on the world stage, making decisions aligned with its values and the needs and interests of its people. Indeed, those principles help to guide our bilateral relationship during this 75th anniversary of bilateral relations.
Let’s look at some concrete examples of our support for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence. In August I had the honor of opening the Indo-Pacific Environmental Security Forum, a collaborative effort by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and Sri Lankan Navy – the first time we have jointly co-hosted. Over 100 participants from 28 countries gathered in Colombo to discuss critical topics such as Climate Change and Security; Land Security and Impacts to National Resilience; Maritime and Water Security; Security Impacts of Urbanization; and Women, Peace, and Security. The climate crisis affects us all, but its impact is particularly severe on island nations like Sri Lanka. Events like these foster responsible stewardship of the Indo-Pacific region by sharing best practices, encouraging sustainable military operations, and addressing environmental security challenges collaboratively.
When it comes to Maritime Security and Maritime Domain Awareness, the United States leads the way in enhancing and expanding Sri Lanka’s capacity to uphold its maritime sovereignty. We share resources and best practices that help Sri Lanka protect its economic resources and respond to transnational criminal activity in its territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone. Piracy, armed robbery at sea, and trafficking all degrade maritime security. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing threatens the entire region’s blue economies, an essential element to the prosperity of future generations. The U.S. government has donated three ships to the Sri Lanka Navy, the most recent being the VIJAYABAHU, which embarked on its operational life under the Sri Lankan flag last November. These efforts to strengthen its naval fleet underscore our unwavering support for a strong and prosperous Sri Lanka, capable of thwarting coercion and threats from malign actors.
I mentioned the blue economy, which for Sri Lanka plays a vital role in the country’s development towards prosperity. Investment in sustainable blue economies spurs economic development and demonstrates how environmental protection and economic growth are mutually reinforcing. Sri Lanka is strategically located amidst the world’s busiest shipping lanes through which about half of all container ships and two-thirds of all oil shipments pass. Ensuring that the global trade of goods can freely flow across the open seas is not only critical for Sri Lanka but for the rest of the world’s economies which depend on the timely delivery of its cargo to support trade and economic development. The United States is committed to ensuring a prosperous blue economy for Sri Lanka and other nations across the Indo-Pacific. Since the launch of the Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2022, the U.S. government has dedicated over $2 billion in foreign assistance to Indo-Pacific priorities in the form of USAID economic development, U.S. International Development Finance Corporation financing, Millennium Challenge Corporation compacts, capacity building within the security sphere, and global health and climate resilience aid.
When a country prioritizes sovereignty, transparency, good governance, sensible reforms, and engaging all stakeholders in democratic fashion, there is no end to the potential of Sri Lanka’s critical role in the Indo Pacific. As we listen to the presentations and hear about the research and theories of today’s presenters, the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder, with Sri Lanka, with all of you and your nations, to be ambitious, to look for ways to work collaboratively to further our shared vision for a more peaceful, prosperous, and resilient Indian Ocean region. Thank you.