Ambassador Julie J. Chung’s Remarks at the Colombo Plan’s Port of Colombo Capacity Building Project Launch

January 31, 2024

Good evening Minister De Silva, Sri Lanka Ports Authority and Colombo Plan leadership, ambassadors and high commissioners, distinguished guests and friends from the shipping sector.

I’m excited to be here tonight to commemorate the launch of the Port of Colombo Capacity Building Project funded by the U.S. Department of State.  The U.S. government is teaming up with the Colombo Plan to invest in human resources- to  expand the knowledge, technical skillset, and expertise of SLPA’s engineers, port managers, and other operational staff.  The goal of this initiative is to provide professional training on current trends and technological advancements in the ports management field, expose SLPA staff to the latest international standards and best practices, and prepare Sri Lanka’s ports sector, including in cybersecurity measures, as it expands to meet the growing demand of the global economy.

I just returned from Honolulu where I met with U.S. ambassadors and senior security officials from across the Indo Pacific. We talked about the connectivity and resilience of the region and the importance of transboundary cooperation, which strengthens relationships, facilitates information sharing, and encourages collaboration on a range of issues.   We talked about the importance of Sri Lanka in the Indo Pacific. I also visited the 100 year old bodhi tree there whose sapling came from Sri Lanka, a symbol of the connection between the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean.

The Colombo Plan, as a regional intergovernmental organization, has a long history of drawing from the resources of member states to implement infrastructure projects and developing human capital through training and education.  It is through these cooperative programs, from the initial group of dental nurses trained in New Zealand to aeronautical engineering courses taught by Indian professors, that the Colombo Plan developed a reputation for spearheading capacity building initiatives with funding, resources, and expertise from member states.  Fast forward to today, Colombo Plan has become a global pioneer in drug demand reduction programming among other areas.

Recognizing that this room is filled with decades of experience working in the shipping industry, I don’t have to tell you that Sri Lanka’s ports are a vital lifeline for the island’s population, receiving everything from food products to construction equipment, cars, and even fuel.  Just as important, Port of Colombo is also a transshipment hub that handled nearly seven million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent unit) in 2023.  Those numbers will continue to grow exponentially as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation-funded West Container Terminal and SLPA-operated East Container Terminal come online in the coming year.  Sri Lanka’s ports play an essential role in supporting the Sri Lankan economy as the island steadily recovers from past crises.

So, why is the United States interested in supporting Sri Lanka’s maritime sector?

Let’s first look at this through the lens of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy.  This launch comes on the heels of the upcoming IPS second anniversary in February.  You may already be familiar with the five pillars of the IPS: to promote a free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient Indo-Pacific.  But what does that mean in the context of Sri Lanka?

When it comes to advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region, we seek to ensure the region’s seas and skies are governed and used according to international law.  By donating three ships to the Sri Lanka Navy since 2005, the U.S. government has strengthened Sri Lanka’s capacity to patrol its waters and respond to transnational criminal activities such as piracy, human and drug trafficking, and armed robbery at sea, in addition to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.  These ships also help maintain the freedom of navigation for all vessels using Sri Lankan ports or traversing Sri Lankan waters.

We aim to build or expand connections within and beyond the Indian Ocean region, helping to facilitate linkages and relationships with Sri Lanka’s neighbors and distant partners.  While all of Sri Lanka’s ports, by nature, serve as important connection points to other ports around the world, the Port of Colombo is South Asia’s only mega port and transshipment hub, shuffling cargo from feeder ships to mother ships and vice versa.  Our assistance will help streamline operations and incorporate industry-leading standards, with the ultimate goal of reducing vessel turnaround time and allowing for the port to handle greater amounts of cargo.

To meet our goal of promoting private sector-led economic growth in Sri Lanka and around the region, the recent U.S. investment of $553 million to support the development, construction, and operation of the West Container Terminal will establish the nation’s largest, deepwater terminal and expand Port of Colombo capacity by nearly 50 percent.  This critical infrastructure project not only provides a boost to Sri Lanka’s economy and demonstrates to the world that the United States is committed to the development and well-being of the Sri Lankan people, but also signals to other nations the existence of sound investment opportunities here on the island.

By sharing resources and best practices, we continue to bolster Indo-Pacific security and enhance Sri Lanka’s capabilities to maintain and protect its maritime sovereignty.  In December, the U.S. Coast Guard continued its efforts to strengthen Sri Lanka’s maritime security capabilities.  Through extensive training of Sri Lankan service members, our Coast Guard enhanced the capabilities of law enforcement personnel to respond to hazardous materials entering Sri Lankan territorial waters.

Furthermore, we have programmed over $50 million dollars in maritime-focused security assistance funds for Sri Lanka just in the past five years. This funding is strengthening maritime domain awareness systems, providing countless maritime security training opportunities here and in the United States, and building collaborative opportunities with other regional and international partners.  The United States is also major donor to the UNODC’s Global Maritime Crime Program in support of its efforts to boost Sri Lanka’s maritime security capabilities.

Finally, we aim to build regional resilience to 21st century transnational threats such as climate change, overfishing, and supply chain disruptions.  The current situation in the Red Sea underscores the importance of Sri Lanka’s ports in ensuring supply chain resiliency and the need for enhancing port capacity.  Sri Lanka has a vital role to play in facilitating global trade and ensuring the world’s cargo efficiently traverses the Indian Ocean.

These are just a few examples of how the United States is steadfast in expanding cooperation and support for Sri Lanka’s maritime sector.  But we need the work of all of Colombo Plan’s member states, all of you here today. Given the importance of this sector to the rest of the world, I look forward to future opportunities to underscore our commitment to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and prosperity. Just like that bodhi tree that stands strong, we are all similarly like the branches of that tree that will work hard together to strengthen Sri Lanka’s position in the Indo Pacific.  Thank you.