Navigating SL’s interests within EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy  

  • Strategists and diplomats lay out areas of mutual co-operation and concern, and potential remedies  

BY Sumudu Chamara

The European Union’s (EU) Indo Pacific Strategy, which was formally released in September 2021, can be beneficial to Sri Lanka in a number of ways including strengthened security, sustainable development, new technology, and long-term economic stability. While some of them are long-term targets, it can help Sri Lanka deal with certain current issues such as Sri Lanka being trapped between world powers in the region and the economy that is in need of more international support.

These matters and a number of other matters pertaining to international relations with a focus on the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy were discussed by local and EU experts at a forum titled “The EU Indo Pacific Strategy through Sri Lanka’s Lens: Opportunities for Co-operation and Partnership”, which was held on 27 January.

Limitations, benefits, and risks

It was emphasised during the forum that the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy can be beneficial to Sri Lanka in a number of ways, both at international and domestic levels.

According to Dr. Harinda Vidanage of the Kotelawala Defence University’s (KDU) Strategic Studies Department, the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy creates spaces of manoeuvrability for small states, contributes positively towards Sri Lanka’s aspirations to be a global and regional hub, expands the security discourse by overcoming policy limitations in the security spectrum, and expands and enhances security co-operation.

Adding that one of the significant qualities of the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy is that it helps small powers like Sri Lanka, he added: “One of the major assets of strategic autonomy for a small power is its manoeuvrability – the more we can manoeuvre, the more we can influence, at least with regard to outcomes, in certain ways that we are comfortable with. But the current condition we are facing is one of absolute rigidity. It is a reality we are facing day in and day out. Secondly, the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy kind of helps in the context of Sri Lanka having always had hub-related inspirations. We have been identifying in most government manifestos, election manifestos, and in government policies, the idea of locating and maintaining Sri Lanka as a hub of all sorts. This is pretty much helped by the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy, because the Strategy entails in detail areas where such co-operation is vital.” 

Dr. Vidanage also shed light on certain areas of the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy which he said are concerning.

He noted that the word “region” is changing, and that political values each country or region represents and holds on to may vary. He explained that when it comes to countries and Governments in the region, they may have values that are different to those of the EU. He identified that the EU’s moral high ground is different to Sri Lanka’s strategic high ground, and said that incommensurable objectives may lead to negative impacts on small States.

“So, if you push small states too much to take your own high ground, small states might fall and that is a reality,” he stressed. 

Moreover, speaking of connectivity and practicality-related challenges, he said that several decades ago, the EU region was known as an unidentified political object. He added that it has changed to an unidentified political region over time, because sometimes it is difficult to understand the political situation in that region.

Even though usually seen as a positive quality, according to him, small states do not have the privilege of always maintaining neutrality. 

He added: “Yes, small states have to be neutral. But, when push comes to shove, it is dictated by necessity, and small states also have to do what they need to do, in order to survive.”

Speaking further on the significant qualities of the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy, Dr. Vidanage pointed out several aspects, including concerns about the institutionalisation of the Indo Pacific region, competition, militarisation, rivalry and weaponisation, strategic economy, and multilateralism and unilateralism. 

With regard to security-related aspects, Dr. Vidanage said: “The EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy helps us to expand the security discourse in the country. When you are a small power trapped in a big powers’ rivalrous region, your narrative of security also becomes very narrow. But, I think that the EU has brought back, to a certain extent, the values and norms they always represent. That is the broadening and deepening of the security discourse, and this is entrenched in this strategy. Also, that will help Sri Lanka to kind of experience the expansion and enhancement of security co-operation that it really needs. We are living in a seriously weaponised region and serious money has been spent by all the countries around us such as Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Singapore. They are putting billions of dollars for the modernisation of militaries and security campaigns. One of the very sad situations Sri Lanka is facing is that we have great, professionalised armed forces, but we are lacking the modernisation aspect of our assets. We are very much based on legacy systems. We still talk about maritime security or air domain superiority, but we cannot match with the legacy systems that are in place. So we really need that help, especially in areas of cyber security and space security. When I say cyber, I am not referring to the mere technical aspects of it. It also has to do with political warfare, a hybrid aspect which the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy entails.”

Speaking of multilateralism and unilateralism in the context of international relations, he added: “When it comes to the geopolitical shaping of the region, there is this idea that has been pushed through even the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy. That is the idea of multilateralism. The question is, is that a very sincere or automatic multilateralism, or is it something like a phantom multilateralism which is overtaken by a certain form of unilateralism because of the great power rivalry in the region?”

China, the Indo Pacific, and int’l. relations

China’s rise and influence in the world, especially on small states, was another matter that was discussed at length, and it was emphasised that the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy is not against China or any other country even though China remains a big concern. During the discussion, China’s rise was discussed more in economic contexts.

German Federal Foreign Office Director – South Asia and Indo Pacific Policy Dr. Jasper Wieck said that while co-operation regarding matters related to the economy and trade, climate change and the environment, and sustainable supply chains, have been taken into account when drafting the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy, another concern that was considered was what he referred to as the “relentless rise of China”.

“China’s rise is becoming increasingly challenging simply by the economic and political power with which China impacts the regional and global order,” he said. 

Speaking on concerns pertaining to growing antagonism and bipolarity in the world, he said that Germany does not wish to be in a situation where it has to choose sides. He expressed concerns that in a context where Europe has experienced bipolarity for decades at a tremendous economic cost, it does not intend to face a similar situation again and that such situations should therefore be avoided. Adding that their political guidelines are trying to give an answer to the above-mentioned challenges and concerns, Dr. Wieck said that enhancing the EU’s engagement in the Indo Pacific region is necessary. 

He further said: “We all know that we are not able to contain China’s rise, and that China’s rise is a fact. We should also not try to weaken China. Instead, we should rather try to become strong ourselves, and one of the ways to become strong ourselves is to check the potential of the partnerships with emerging economies in the Indo Pacific region by increasing investments, enhancing trade relationships, and by strengthening our political partnerships. By doing so, we will become stronger, and we will be in a position to cope with a strong China. Our guidelines are not directed against anyone or any country. Rather, what we are focusing on is actions in the fields of policy, tackling climate change, strengthening peace, security, and stability, and promoting human rights and the rule of law, or the free trade agenda. All these areas, or all of these policy fields, are open to all countries of the region including China.”

Meanwhile, speaking on the same during his speech, Dr. Frederic Grare of the European Council on Foreign Relations noted that the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy does not mean a confrontational approach to China. He said that the perception of China has changed fundamentally.

According to Dr. Grare, the EU categorises China as a partner, competitor, and also a systematic rival, and that was long before the EU elaborated on its Indo Pacific Strategy.

He further said: “When I say that the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy aims at managing China, it means that the EU is still willing to co-operate with China. But it is not ready to ignore its threats or interests.”

Dr. Grare added that the EU is coming forward to support the Indo Pacific region to deal with the challenges the region is facing, including climate change, marine pollution, biodiversity loss, illegal, and unregulated fishing activities, among others.

Culture and new challenges in the region

Meanwhile, Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka Director General Prof. Rohan Gunaratna described how Europe has been a part of Sri Lanka’s culture by influencing it in certain ways, and how that historic relationship has resulted in positive outcomes. He pointed out that European scholars maintained a deep and close relationship with Sri Lanka and with the region. 

He also spoke of how European influence, including the influence that came through European invasions, has changed Sri Lankans lives. Adding that Europeans were very benevolent towards Sri Lanka and that the European influence led Sri Lankans to speak English and dress in European attire, among other things, Prof. Gunaratna noted that Europe built a system in Sri Lanka that still exists in the country, especially in commerce and education.

Another matter that was discussed throughout the event, about which Prof. Gunaratna also spoke, was the security situation in the Indo Pacific region, and why a partnership between the EU and the Indo Pacific region is necessary and how such a partnership could help strengthen the security in the region. He identified the Taliban capturing Kabul of Afghanistan in August of last year as an extremely significant development in the Asian region, which he noted has changed much of the security landscape in the Indo Pacific region. 

“There is an increased flow of drugs through Iran and Pakistan into our waters,” he warned, adding that while the manner in which the drug trade operates in the region has changed to a certain extent following the Taliban’s invasion of Kabul, Sri Lanka’s forces have successfully curtailed such activities in Sri Lankan waters.

He added: “This is one of the significant areas where Europe can contribute. Sri Lanka has tried to work with a number of partners, and I think that for this particular drug interception, European co-operation is absolutely vital. When dealing with the US, there are some reservations, but I do not think that the same reservations would exist when dealing with Europe. Certainly, US capabilities are 10 years ahead. But, in terms of diplomacy, Europe is a great partner. If you look at the flow of drugs, which is a very significant threat, that concerns national security, because it affects not only the current generation but also the next generation. We are looking for co-operation and collaboration. Sri Lanka is ready to work with European partners in this domain.”

Prof. Gunaratna emphasised: “The threats, competition, and rivalry in the region are coming not only from state actors. The threat is primarily coming from non-state actors.” In addition to the drug trade in the region, he said that other illegal goods such as weapons are also being transported via the Indo Pacific region.

While international relations, especially between countries that have mutual interests, are important, as per what was discussed at the forum, they come with a greater responsibility. Managing the benefits, risks, and challenges, and finding common purposes are key to making any partnership a success.

In addition to these matters, a number of crucial and timely topics that come under the EU’s Indo Pacific Strategy or explains Sri Lanka’s trade and maritime situations were discussed by more experts and diplomats during the forum. They will be published in tomorrow’s (2) edition of The Morning.