Can Sri Lanka be the Future Hub of the Indian Ocean Rim?

“Colombo matters because the Indian Ocean matters. The “great game” of this century will be played on the waters of the Indian Ocean”

Taking into account the given statement for discussion it is appropriate to evaluate the expression given by Harsh Pant as it would be worth of analyzing which upholds the idea that Sri Lanka is the key to govern the Indian Ocean as it is placed in the center of sea routes. It is also known to be one of the most important hubs located to its benefit in the international trade in the Asian region more specifically in the Indian Ocean.

On the other hand, it can be assumed that the great game of the 21st century will be played on the Indian Ocean . A new great game is emerging in the Indian Ocean region as a result of common strategic interests shared by the world’s major powers; the United States on one hand, and India and China on the other hand, who are the Economic Giants in Asia. Thus, taking into account this recently arisen issue in the Indian Ocean, this research will be based on how this so called “great game” will affect the countries located within this region and the ways in which Sri Lanka could take advantage of its location political, economic and cultural wise. Therefore, it is crucial that the Sri Lankan policy makers be mindful as to the great game revealing in the Indian Ocean as it guarantees many advantages.

Taking into account the competition between India and China over Sri Lanka, because of the commercial and political influence will play a major role in the naval realm than on land. However, India’s and China’s mutual dependence on the same sea routes could pave way to an association between them and in a way, it might be implicitly argumentative to the United States, In other words, Indian Ocean will be the place where global power dynamics will be revealed. In collaboration with neighboring Near East and Central Asia, constitutes the new great game in geopolitics.

Colombo being a focal point between Aden and Singapore makes it extremely significant. Considering what made Sri Lanka take China more seriously was India’s eagerness towards China, at present, China has expelled Japan as Sri Lanka’s major aid donor, with an aid package of more than $1 billion per annum . However, China can be regarded as the first foreign country that has an exclusive economic zone in Sri Lanka. Also it is involved in infrastructure development projects including power plant construction, modernization of Sri Lankan railways, and financial and technical assistance in launching communication satellites etc. Also a local port, Hambantota, a landmark project launched with an investment of US$ 360 million for the first phase and it has commited US$ 800 million in the second phase. The estimate cost of the project is US$ one billion which is constructed by China Harbour Engineering Corporation in combination with Sino Hydro Cooperation.

However, India has expressed its incensement over China’s growing involvement  in Sri Lanka on a number of occasions.  For example, once India criticized Sri Lanka for seeking to purchase a Radar-system from China on the grounds that it would exceed Indian air space.  While China develops its ties and bonds with Colombo, India is struggling to make it more important to Sri Lanka than China.

To counter China’s influence, New Delhi is visualizing that it will have greater strategic space to manage bilateral ties. New Delhi will have to continue balancing its domestic sensitivities and strategic interests Therefore; Beijing faces no such restraint in developing even stronger ties with Colombo. However, the Indian policy makers should realize that unless they are more proactive they are in danger of losing the game for good.

However, considering the fact that India is a “continental” power which occupies a central position in the Indian Ocean region, exercising an increasingly profound interest on it would largely determine India’s security. As per K. M. Pannikar wrote in the 1940s, “while to other countries Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas to India it is a vital sea”.  Thereby it’s clear that all industrial development, commercial growth is depend on the assurance of her freedom of water surface where her lifelines are concentrated.

According to one Sri Lankan Observer, “India and Sri Lanka has close bonds. There is a new respect for India”  This sometimes reflect the hesitation in Colombo to challenge New Delhi, for instance in the case of the Sethusamudram Canal Project, that could affect Sri Lankan interests. As a consequence of the 2004 Tsunami, the Indo-Sri Lankan connection was solidified most recently, but a string of developments had already promoted close relations. Also a free trade agreement came into force in 2000 has doubled the bilateral commerce and enlarged India’s share of Sri Lanka’s trade. Moreover, these two countries are moving towards a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)  However, there is no doubt about Indo-Sri Lanka economic ties in the present, India has become the Sri Lanka’s largest importer followed by China  and the third largest export market.

The core of this analysis is whether Sri Lanka markets itself as a hub in the Indian Ocean? This is realistically possible due to the geological fortune we are blessed with and Sri Lanka must be watchful in identifying its potential opportunities as it has become the key in dominating the Indian Ocean. Thereby, we should take into account how Sri Lanka can take benefit out of its strategic location. However, it’s also paramount to note that the policy makers will only have to renew certain bonds as Sri Lanka is also facilitated with the advantage of having ancient cultural and religious ties with these countries.

Moreover, considering the modes of transportation it is a well known fact that sea freight is sounder and vibrant than air freight both economically and ecologically. Thereby, this indirectly suggests that the Indian Ocean will be of great importance in all aspects when it comes to the economic giants in the world.

As mentioned above, Sri Lanka is at the center of the Indian Ocean. But it must be noted that centers and hubs are not geographical as centers are made through connections. However, Sri Lanka becoming a hub would not be beneficial if our policy makers treat it as just another geographical location. Sri Lanka will have to market itself as a hub and also to promote itself with other competing hubs such as ports in Myanmar, India and Bangladesh and grab all the advantages it could. However one of the main economic resources in world for an example, Oil Industry/Exploration, according to the CIA Fact Book, “An estimated 40% of the world’s offshore oil production comes from the Indian Ocean”.  Therefore, we have to develop our local ports to International standards with good infrastructure and logistical services which are vital to attract ships.  Also rate structure for bunkering and port charges should be altered to be competitive and to gain comparative advantage as Port and freight rates in Sri Lanka are high, which is a disadvantage for the shipping industry.  Thereby, the Sri Lankan Government should take immediate steps to make it become a new maritime hub.

Over 500 ships are said to pass the South of the country.  So the new port Hambanthota which is expected to boost the shipping industry in the country will provide services to the ships that sail on the southern route. This is one of the largest and deepest in the region.  So that it will help mitigate pressure on the Colombo port by providing services to vessels on route.

Trincomalee is regarded as the second best natural harbor in the world,  in which the available water and land area is about 10 times than that of Colombo harbor. The depth of the natural basin could accommodate 18000 container-capacity ships.

Moreover, with the rapid growth of economy and the end of a bitter war in the island and with all the attention that Sri Lanka has received due to the great game in the Indian Ocean, tourism in our country is flourishing. It must be noted that even one of the largest travel guide book and digital media publisher in the world “Lonely Planet” has ranked Sri Lanka as the best value destinations to visit in 2013.  Our government can take advantage of this by identifying tourism as a key growth area and promote our golden beaches, men tamed rocks and filled oceans and built cities in the sky such as Sigiriya, Wild life, Cultural and Religious Festivals like Kandy Perahera and many more attractions around the island such as watching blue whales and the region’s best coral reefs in Hikkaduwa, Water games such as Scuba and Surfing in Unawatuna.  Also by promoting the Film Industry and building Tele Cinema Villages such as Ranminithenna in Tissamaharama as Sri Lanka’s geographical location makes it the optimal venue for shooting low budget films as it involves less travel expense. Sri Lanka is one of the few islands in the world with such diverse climates in such a small area.

“Everyone is focusing their attention on the Indian Ocean. We are in the center of the Indian Ocean. We need to consider how well we balance this geo-political competition while benefitting from what is happening in the region,”   In analyzing the given statement, in conclusion it could be said that Sri Lanka, the “pearl” of the Indian Ocean, is strategically located within the east-west international shipping passageway must take the initiative to make the choice to take a chance to establish the change it must take towards development it seeks to rise up to its due potential. Future economies will be knowledge based; which has a much longer term benefit compared to investments. Thereby, if Sri Lanka compels its counterparts in China and India to share their best practices, the island can reduce its foreign loans and expertise in order to build infrastructure. On the other hand, brain drain or the loss of human capital would be discouraged as there would be more job opportunities available in the country. Hence, in order to win this “great game “, Sri Lanka needs to be part of the game.

Hareendra Karunatilaka, Snapshots from Trinco, Booktango Books; 1
The Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Annual Report, 2013; Chapters 1-3
Kaplan D. Robert, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, Random House Publishers, New York, 25 March 2014
Kaplan D. Robert, Monsoon; the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Random House Publishers, New York, 13 September 2011; 12-13
Journal Articles:
Donald L. Berlin, “India in the Indian Ocean”, Naval War College Review, Spring 2006, Vol 59, No 2; 59
Jayantha Rathnayake; A.W. Wijeratne, Second container port in Sri Lanka; Hambanthota or Trincomalee: an analysis using the game theory, Int. J. of Logistics Systems and Management, 2012 Vol.13, No.3, pp.358 – 378
Kaplan D. Robert, South Asia’s Geography of Conflict, August 2010
Kelegama, S. 2014. India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement and the Proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement: A Closer Look. ADBI Working Paper 458. Tokyo: Asian Development Bank Institute. Available:
Tomoharu Ozawa, “A Study of the Harbor Strategy in Colombo Port” < >

Newspapers Article
Harsh V.Pant, “Indian Blunder in Sri Lanka” –, New Indian Express, 11 November 2013
Harsh V.Pant, “The New Battle for Sri Lanka” –, 17 June 2010
Harsh V. Pant, “Why Colombo is the key to dominating the Indian Ocean?” – < > Saturday, 22 September 2012

Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) –
Sri Lanka- Wonder of Asia – < >