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PARA DIPLOMACY KEY IN UNLOCKING BAY OF BENGAL POTENTIAL: PM

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Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe addresses the Colombo International Maritime Conference. CASA Chairman Capt. Ajit Peiris, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, Colombo Shippers Academy CEO Rohan Masakorala and Sri Lanka Shippers Council Chairman Sean Van Dort look on - Pic by Kaithsiri de Mel. See Pictorial on Page 18.
By Madushka Balasuriya

The Government believes that India’s Sagar Mala project should be looked at in positive terms and not as a threat if Sri Lanka, along with the region, wants to achieve its medium to long-term growth objectives.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe added that India’s recent foreign policy shift towards para diplomacy - which allows individual states to form special relations with foreign countries - would enable Sri Lanka to form a $ 500 billion economy in the region.

“We’re looking at linking up with India. The port development here is complementary to India’s plans. Joining Sagar Mala is an advantage to us, not a disadvantage,” he said in his keynote address at the Colombo International Maritime Conference on Thursday.

The Sagar Mala project is a port-led development project undertaken by the Indian Government, whereby 13 coastal regions and 12 ports have been identified for modernisation in order to contribute towards India’s economic growth. Six megaports are also a part of the project - Vizhinjam International Seaport, Colachel Seaport, Vadhavan Port, Tadadi Port, Machilipatnam Port and Sagar Island Port - but these are seen by some stakeholders as a competitor to Sri Lanka, which harbours ambitions of becoming the premier maritime hub in the region.

Wickremesinghe however was unperturbed, adding: “We’re looking at the para diplomacy of India, where Sri Lanka could link with Southern Indian states such as Andhra Pradesh, Calcutta, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and create a $ 500 billion economy.”

The Prime Minister also touched upon plans for the Mattala Airport and the Hambantota Harbour, which he had once referred to as “the world’s largest swimming pool”. He revealed that investment is being sought by the Government from China under their OBOR (One Belt One Road) initiative, with the selection process already underway.

“We have plans to make a success of the Hambantota Harbour and the Mattala Airport. We have agreed with the Chinese under the OBOR initiative, both for the development of the harbour and the airport, both of which will be managed under a joint Public-Private Partnership,” he said, adding that an agreement has also been reached with the Sabana Company in Singapore regarding the development of the Trincomalee harbour.

“There is all this potential in the Bay of Bengal with Bangladesh and Pakistan planning the development of ports in the region. There is a tremendous capacity to come out of Bangladesh as well as places like Odisha in Eastern India and Myanmar.

“Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee Port is the ideal port to work and link up with Visakhapatnam [port city in India]. So while Sabana is planning this out, we’re also talking with India and Japan on how to develop it as a major port.”

The end goal, Wickremesinghe explained, was to develop the Bay of Bengal into a region which could compete with the Caribbean, emphasising his point by drawing a vivid picture of wealthy tourists taking their yachts on a journey easily through the region.

“This is the Sri Lanka we are planning,” he began. “We can even give you a holiday where you needn’t even put your foot into Sri Lanka. Can we start somewhere in Mumbai or Kochi? Go to Maldives. Come to Sri Lanka. Go to Andaman Islands. Go down to Thailand, maybe Phuket. Down into Singapore. We’re looking at the island off Jaffna, where there won’t be any hotels but from the sand bar in Mannar northward into the island, into the KKS (Kankesanthurai) Port, or even all the way down to Galle.

“For me the Bay of Bengal has the potential to be the biggest destination, even rivalling the Caribbean. It can be done.”