March 4, 2022
Thank you very much and good afternoon.
I arrived in Sri Lanka recently and just presented my credentials one week ago today so it’s a great honor to be participating in my first conference here, and on such an important topic as security and prosperity in the Indian Ocean, and our shared goals.
Excellencies, distinguished panelists, participants, I’m very pleased to be able to join you at the opening of this conference that will examine how we might work together to advance security in the Indian Ocean region. I want to start by recognizing the Pathfinder Foundation and conference organizers Ambassadors Silva, Goonetilleke and Menon, and the Embassy of Japan for gathering us together for this important conversation.
We continue the fruitful discussion on this topic led by the Pathfinder Foundation in November 2020. One of the themes raised at that conference was how improved regional connectivity would strengthen development throughout the region. Related to that were concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on development. Over the last two years, this pandemic has made undeniably clear that we are only as strong as our collective ability to respond to challenges, particularly new and emerging global threats such as the impacts of climate. It has also underscored the need to work with partners to adapt regional governance to become more resilient to these and other emerging 21st century threats. For example, as President Biden and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry have made clear, the United States is committed to working with partners to reduce their vulnerability to the impacts of climate and will support the development of disaster resilient infrastructure and address energy security.
I very much appreciate the opportunity to briefly discuss in these opening remarks the importance of the Indian Ocean within a broader Indo-Pacific context. I think we all know that the Indian Ocean is a vital lifeline for the world’s trade due to the sea lanes -passing within 10 miles of Sri Lanka- carrying half of the world’s container ships, a third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic, and two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments. As such, security of the Indian Ocean is a key linchpin for the overall Indo-Pacific, which is the fastest growing region on the planet, accounting for 60 percent of the world economy and two-thirds of all economic growth over the last five years. And Sri Lanka is a key part of that linchpin and should take pride and a leadership role in the region.
The United States is a proud Indo-Pacific nation and our vision for the region, as laid out in the recently released Indo-Pacific Strategy, is centered on five core elements. When I say the Indo-Pacific Strategy is “our” vision for the region, I do not mean it is just a vision of the United States. Rather, I mean to suggest that-whether we realize it or not – this is actually a shared vision, based on collective interests and collaborative partnerships, for an Indo-Pacific that is Free and Open, Connected, Prosperous, Resilient, and Secure. So let me briefly highlight the core elements of our Indo-Pacific Strategy.
First, we will continue to work to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific. In addition to rule-based and responsive governance, this also means that goods and ideas and people can flow freely – across land, air, cyberspace, and most critically here, the open seas. Given Sri Lanka’s key geostrategic position, next to key sea lanes vital to world trade, it is no surprise that Sri Lanka invests in shipping-related industries, such as ports and ship building. But these industries, and Sri Lanka’s connectivity to the world, are dependent on having freedom of navigation to use sea lanes – together with freedom of overflight – which is why we have a shared interest in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Second, we will look to forge stronger connections to build collective capacity within and beyond the region. We recognize that no country can shape the future of the region by itself and that a robust network of sovereign countries cooperating to secure their collective interests must be an integral part of any vision for the region. Third, we will promote broad-based regional prosperity. The United States has provided more than a trillion dollars in foreign direct investment in the Indo-Pacific, and at President Biden’s direction, we are looking at how to do more. We are developing a comprehensive Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for shared objectives, including key areas such as climate and clean energy, fair trade facilitation, resilient supply chains, and other priorities. We also support sustainable and inclusive commercial activity across the region. For example, 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 to promote economic engagement and highlighted nearly $7 billion in new private sector projects.
The United States and Sri Lanka share a clear interest in Indo-Pacific Connectivity and Prosperity. The United States is Sri Lanka’s largest single country export market, accounting for nearly $2.8 billion of the $11.9 billion of goods Sri Lanka exports annually, and Sri Lankan companies that export to the United States account for more than 180,000 jobs in Sri Lanka. Prosperity also calls for an inclusive economic environment that leverages Sri Lanka’s assets which is why, in the past year, the U.S. Development Finance Corporation has partnered with private Sri Lankan banks to provide $265 million in financing to ensure small businesses have access to capital to nourish their own visions.
Fourth, we will help build regional resilience to transnational threats. The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis underscore the urgency of this task. The United States has sent more than 100 million safe, effective vaccine doses to the Indo-Pacific and provided over $2.8 billion in additional assistance in the region to save lives, for everything from personal protective equipment to medical oxygen for hospitals. This has been done free of charge, with no strings attached. Here, in Sri Lanka, we have partnered closely to build COVID resiliency, donating about 4 million vaccines to Sri Lanka and providing close to $18 million to support Sri Lanka’s response and recovery since the pandemic’s outset. We also are working with countries throughout the region, including in Sri Lanka, to accelerate the transition to clean energy and build climate resiliency.
Finally, we will bolster Indo-Pacific security. As threats evolve, our security approach must evolve too. But we must, and will, acknowledge that our greatest strength is our alliances and partnerships. In doing so, we will continue to provide security assistance to strengthen maritime security and maritime domain awareness, to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, to fund peacekeeping, and to counter transnational threats. We will also continue to hold military exercises in the Indo-Pacific that are planned and executed with allies, friends and partners to build trusting relationships, increase interoperability, and expand partner capability and capacity so that we’re all better able to respond to the challenges posed by the region.
The United States and Sri Lanka have a number of shared commitments and partnerships to make real our vision for a Secure Indo-Pacific. As people in Sri Lanka well know, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing threatens marine ecosystems, food security and local economies. That’s why both Sri Lanka and the United States are part of an international agreement to prevent illegally caught fish from entering international markets. Smuggling and piracy are also both growing challenges, which is why the United States and Sri Lanka are parties to an international agreement focused on illegal trafficking – of people, weapons and drugs – and are both part of Asia’s first regional agreement against piracy. Our maritime security collaboration is clearly evidenced by our partnership with the Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Air Force to build capabilities for maritime patrols and interdictions. Through this partnership, and with vessels provided to Sri Lanka by the U.S., Sri Lanka had 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. We need to keep working to prevent such devastating disasters in the future.
The United States recognizes that much of our planet’s future will be written here in the Indo-Pacific. And Sri Lanka is at the heart of the Indo Pacific to play a leading role. That is why we have, and will continue to have, an enduring commitment to the region and to collaboration with our allies and partners to help us to achieve a free and open, interconnected, prosperous, resilient, and secure region for all.
Thank you very much for the time today and I look forward to hearing more from the panel discussions throughout the event.