Remarks by Ambassador Atul Keshap at Launch of the Sri Lanka-U.S. Business Council

Ambassador Atul Keshap greeting the audience.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.  It’s great to see so many of you here, and it’s a real honor and pleasure to address you.

First of all, greetings to my good friend Harsha de Silva.  He’s a great guy.  He hears me speak all the time, so he can pay no attention and take no notes.  He’ll know exactly what I’m saying.  [Laughter].

I want to say thank you as well to Samantha Ranatunga for inviting me to come here and speak to you.  I want to thank Dhara Wijethilake for the news that she just gave about the launch of this new Business Council.  I think it’s a very promising new beginning, but in many ways it’s a moment of continuity in U.S.-Sri Lankan relations.  And I see in the audience Asanka Ratnayake over there, representing the AmCham.  Between the AmCham and this new Business Council, I feel like we’ve got two fantastic organizations that can really be dedicated to the boosting of U.S.-Sri Lankan relations to an all-time high.

Ambassador Atul Keshap launching the Sri Lanka-U.S. Business Council website.
Ambassador Atul Keshap launching the Sri Lanka-U.S. Business Council website.
Ambassador Atul Keshap with (left to right) Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva; Chairman of Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Samantha Ranatunga; and President of the Sri Lanka-U.S. Business Council Samantha Rajapaksa.
Ambassador Atul Keshap with (left to right) Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva; Chairman of Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Samantha Ranatunga; and President of the Sri Lanka-U.S. Business Council Samantha Rajapaksa.

Friends, before I came here I was in Trincomalee with Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of the United States Pacific Command in Honolulu, Hawaii.  His visit was very important.  He was the keynote speaker at the Galle Dialogue and gave a very good speech about the importance of freedom of navigation, about freedom of commerce, about norms-based international standards, and peaceful arbitration of disputes.  And his visit also came right after we had our first-ever exercise between the United States and Sri Lanka on training our Marines together.

I mention all of this in this setting because I want you to know that these visits are indicative of something that I have felt very strongly for some months, which is that U.S.-Sri Lankan relations really are at an all-time high.  And when I say that, what I mean is that not only is this an opportune moment for the launch of this new Sri Lanka-U.S. Business Council, but it is also indicative and very much reflective of the choices that the Sri Lankan people made in the elections, the free and fair and democratic elections that took place in January and in August of 2015.

The American people believe in the vision articulated by the Sri Lankan people.  They believe in the vision that your people sketched out of a democratic, peaceful, reconciled Sri Lanka, a unified Sri Lanka.  A Sri Lanka with equal opportunity for all, all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity or their beliefs.  And we believe in that so much that we are trying to be good friends, and that includes things like the visit by Admiral Harris.  It includes the visit by our Millennium Challenge Corporation people.  Our Peace Corps Director was here recently.  We had the first-ever visit by the Chairman of the United States Export-Import Bank.  We’ve had four or five ship visits since I started my tenure as Ambassador.

As I was driving Admiral Harris into town a couple of days ago, the Navy took us through the Port of Colombo.  We drove through the port and saw all of the cranes and the container ships.  We saw all the bustling of a very busy port, the busiest port in all of South Asia.  I pointed out all of the container cranes that are doing all of the transshipments of millions of containers every year, and we talked about how Sri Lanka is ideally positioned right on the most important sea lines of communication in the entire Indian Ocean.  That every ship passing between Hormuz and Malacca, every ship passing between Malacca and the Bab-el-Mandeb and on to Suez and Europe, goes right past Sri Lanka.  And you know this.  Of course you know this.

But what I want to emphasize is that the U.S. is doing its part to try to fuel the prosperity of Sri Lanka and the future happiness of the Sri Lankan people based on their democratic choices.  The U.S. Navy does all it can to ensure the safety and security of sea lanes all around the world including in the Indian Ocean and right here in your near shore waters.  We have programs at the Port of Colombo to ensure container and port security and to work with you on tracking down possible shipments of narcotics and weapons of mass destruction.  These programs, which are long-running, have contributed greatly to the sense that the Port of Colombo, and Sri Lanka in general, is a safe place in which to do business.

So the U.S. will continue these efforts, ladies and gentlemen, and these efforts built upon six decades of work in helping fuel Sri Lanka’s economic rise.

Since 1956 the United States government has provided more than $2 billion in development and humanitarian assistance to benefit all of the people of Sri Lanka.  The U.S. government’s development assistance package in 2015 for Sri Lanka is in the neighborhood of $60 million U.S. dollars.  So that tradition will continue onward.  As was said earlier, the United States is Sri Lanka’s largest export market.  Our estimate is that Sri Lankan exports to the United States totaled almost $3 billion in 2015, reflecting almost 27 percent of total Sri Lankan exports, and reflecting also an increase of 7 percent year on year.

We estimate that the United States is the destination for almost half of the apparel textile exports from Sri Lanka.

Recently, I hosted in my living room a gathering of about 30 or 35 American companies, very reputable companies, which in total hire and employ almost 20,000 Sri Lankans in high paying jobs, many of which involve the export market.

Friends, I would argue that it is not by happenstance that Sri Lanka is focused to such a great extent on exports to the United States.  I would posit to you, and the AmCham certainly knows this, that American companies are some of the most dependable business partners that you can find anywhere in the world.  They are producing the highest quality goods and products and services with the highest standards of ethics and corporate social responsibility, environmental awareness, world class innovation and design, and state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques, all done with a sense of corporate responsibility not only for the environment and for employees, but for the greater good.  These values that American companies bring make them among the finest partners your companies could possibly have.  And certainly the gathering that I had the other day proves that point.

Friends, I was in Hyderabad a couple of months ago.  I had to go for a conference to address some of our younger officers in the region about U.S. policy towards South Asia.  While I was there, I took advantage of being there to visit some of the Fortune 50 American companies that are in Hyderabad.  I visited Facebook, Google, Pratt & Whitney.  I met with the AmCham in Hyderabad.  It is incredible what an ecosystem of innovation and design is being created by American companies in Hyderabad.  Not just in the IT space, but in the aerospace area as well.  What impressed me the most is that – as I went around the corporate campuses where there are tens of thousands of employees of American companies – I met employees who are Sri Lankan at Facebook, at Google.  I talked to these young people.  I said, “How did you end up here?”  They said, well, we have the talent and the skills and the resumes, and we made it through the interview process, and here we are.  And we’re working on some of the most sophisticated business efforts of these companies.  I asked their managers.  I said, “Why did you hire these Sri Lankan kids?”  They said they passed all of our tests, they’re incredibly well-trained and educated, and they are very attractive candidates for working in our companies.

I thought to myself, why are those kids going to Hyderabad?  Why don’t those young men and women work here?  You know?

And so I would lay to you a challenge, and Harsha has heard this so he’s not taking notes.  He’s focusing on his own speech which will be five times better than mine.  [Laughter].  He’s a politician, so he knows how to do this.  [Laughter].  I’m merely an amateur.

My challenge to you is – as you consider your geographic position, as you consider your democratic values, as you consider your values of pluralism, of innovation, of not only democracy and human rights, but the ability to educate and rear people coming out of your universities who have such attractive skill sets – perhaps a day can come, maybe sooner than you think, where Sri Lanka and its exports are known not just for world class Ceylon tea, but for world class Ceylon IT.  [Applause]

Friends, it’s my belief that Chambers like this can really spark the connectivity that takes Sri Lanka-U.S. relations to the next level.  I think there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity there, and with the ideas of everybody in this room and with an ambitious vision we can not only see apparel and rubber and all the other things that were listed going towards the United States, we can see American IT companies working with Sri Lankan IT companies to ensure mutual prosperity between our countries.

Friends, I feel that it is very important to have ambitious goals in life, and I think it’s terrific that the Ceylon Chamber has put together this new U.S.-Sri Lanka Chamber to look at how we can maximize opportunities.  We already have the Partnership Dialogue which is the apex dialogue between our two countries.  We already have the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement dialogue which is our nuts and bolts economic dialogue.  Now what we need is for business to take advantage of the new height in U.S.-Sri Lanka relations and really flesh it out in a way that is beneficial to the people of both of our countries.  I’m convinced that as these new organizations are created and as your energy flows in, great things can be accomplished.

I want to congratulate everybody who made this day happen.  I want to thank everybody for coming.  And I promise that on the part of the men and women at the U.S. Embassy here in Colombo, Sri Lanka, we will certainly give our full effort to trying to achieve a very bright vision of U.S.-Sri Lanka economic, business, trade and investment ties.

Thank you all so very much.