Prof. Rory Medcalf, the Head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, was in Sri Lanka recently. In an interview with Daily Mirror during his stay, he speaks about Sri Lanka’s strategic positioning and its importance from the Australian point of view.
Q How do you view your visit to Sri Lanka?
The purpose of this visit is to bring a delegation of Australian analysts – academics, ex-Navy personnel etc. We really want to deepen the strategic and security relationship between Australia and Sri Lanka. This is partly a learning experience. We are here to understand Sri Lanka’s strategic world view. Sri Lanka is becoming a much more active and important player in the Indo-Pacific region, this maritime super-region to which both our nations belong. So we are here to understand Sri Lanka. Secondly we are very interested in sharing Australian perspectives because we believe there is a lot more Sri Lanka and Australia can be doing together. The trilateral dialogue involving Sri Lanka, India and Australia is a very new and regional dialogue, and we hope to make it useful for our governments.
Q How do you view Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean region?
I think Sri Lanka is strategically important. This is in part because the major economies that all of us depend on in Asia – China, India, Japan and South Korea –in turn rely on the sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is a central point in these sea-lanes. It is a vital place for ships to stop. Sri Lanka also has potentially excellent visibility over what is happening in this region, in terms of maritime traffic. Secondly, Sri Lanka has become terrain for strategic competition as we see the rise of China and the expansion of China’s interests and its presence into the Indian Ocean. Australia like many other countries is concerned about how China will use its power and influence. Given some nervousness about America under Donald Trump, Australia is becoming much more active in developing relations with middle players, with other countries that are not China or the United States. These include Japan, India, Indonesia and France. The smaller countries like Singapore and Sri Lanka are also significant. So middle powers need to band together and share notes on how to manage this great power competition. Australia and Sri Lanka can help each other in that way.
No country ought to fall in line with any other country’s program for the region: we need arrangements that are fair, inclusive and respectful of sovereignty
Q Sri Lanka has already joined hands with the Belt and Road Initiative. How will this project play out in the Indian Ocean region?
I am cautious personally about the Belt and Road project. At one level, it is natural and good that rising powers such as China are investing in the region. The region needs infrastructure. You can see some of the initiatives in this country. But we have to ensure that this does not translate into negative strategic and political influence over nations’ independence. And there needs to be good standards of governance and protections to avoid debt traps. Economic investment should be judged on sound commercial grounds. Australia is learning to avoid excessive economic dependence in any one power because, in future, it might turn into coercive leverage.
In Australia, we have very clear guidelines on foreign investments. We have opened partnership with many countries. It is true that our biggest trading partner is China. But, our biggest investment partner is the United States. We have bigger investment relations with the US, Japan and a number of other countries, than with China. Moreover, these days all foreign investments are assessed on national security grounds as well as their economic merits.
Q How does Australia look to relations with China in the future in the context of many countries falling in line with China’s programme?
I see it differently. No country ought to fall in line with any other country’s program for the region: we need arrangements that are fair, inclusive and respectful of sovereignty. Pakistan needs to be wary of its relations with China on that basis. The Indo-Pacific is a big region extending from the United States to the Indian Ocean, with Southeast Asia at the core. By some definitions it even extends up to the coast of Africa. The key point is that this is a region of many powers, too large for any one country to dominate. It is made for multi-polarity and balance – we should embrace that and smaller countries should exploit that opportunity.
Q How do you look at China’s investment in port development in Sri Lanka?
I think it again goes to the question whether China will translate it into strategic influence. If so, it is not in your interest in the long run. This is a multi-polar region. It is too large for one party to dominate. It is a region where middle and small powers have to get together a lot more. I think we all need to be swapping assessments and to think how to manage the great powers such as China. We need to avoid anything that looks like future hegemony. We do not want to see China’s economic projects somehow transforming into a neo-colonial experience for countries that know too well the damage that colonialism can do.
Q How can Sri Lanka balance out its relations with all these countries?
It is a great question. It is an exciting problem for a country. There was a time when Sri Lanka was not getting enough attention or understanding from other parts of the world. Now perhaps you have the opposite problem. You need therefore to develop a clear sense of your national priorities and national values, as a smaller power, as a democracy, as a strategic crossroads. So you must build up your internal capacity and skills. You need active and creative Sri Lankan diplomats: you have some but you need more.You need bigger capacity to deal effectively with all these countries that are courting you. So I recommend that Sri Lanka partners with Australia more closely in training and education in areas like national security and foreign policy – as I would naturally say as the head of a university college! In this regard, Australia can help make Sri Lanka a key diplomatic player, something like a Singapore in the Indian Ocean.
Q How do you view the role of India in ensuring order in the Indian Ocean ?
India is an essential power to order in the Indian Ocean. It will understandably remain the resident major power there, but it is also learning how to navigate the challenges and opportunities of engaging with others. India’s best hope of limiting, for example, Chinese power and influence is to be a constructive and a generous partner to the small island-nations, and to build inclusive security partnerships with other stakeholders in the region, including the United States, Japan, France and Australia.
Q Sri Lanka has a difficult task in striking a balance in its relations with the world powers. India is a country with political interests in Sri Lanka. How can Sri Lanka balance out its relations with India in your view?
Sri Lanka needs to sustain an independent foreign policy, but that does not simply mean swapping Indian influence for Chinese influence. Sri Lanka would be well advised taking an omni-directional approach that includes engagement with a range of powers, including the United States, Japan and Australia as well as China and India.
We do not want to see China’s economic projects somehow transforming into a neo-colonial experience for countries that know too well the damage
Q How do you respond to allegations of human rights violations against Australia in the Manus island where illegal immigrants including some Sri Lankans are held?
The issue of responding to illegal migration and people smuggling has been very politically sensitive in Australia for many years. The Australian Government some years ago reached a policy focused on deterring people smuggling by making it clear that illegal arrivals by sea would not be settled in Australia. Instead, the focus is on an increase intake of legal migrants, including through UN humanitarian programmes. There were troubling reports about conditions in the Manus Island regional processing centre, which has now been closed. These reports have to be weighed against the terrible situation previously, when many people were losing their lives at sea in attempting to reach Australia illegally.
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