Interview: President Maithripala Sirisena

How can Sri Lanka work more closely with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in coordinating regional security?

PRESIDENT MAITHRIPALA SIRISENA: SAARC’s objectives should go beyond regional politics and find ways to create close links among the eight nations. Culture is a great unifier in our region. SAARC plays a pivotal role in fostering harmony and understanding among members, and building a strong base for regional understanding.

The expansion of intra regional economic integration in South Asia is the key to stronger security in the region. However, regional economic cooperation has not seen an equitable increase. Sri Lanka advocates increased economic cooperation based on equitable trade by complementing the strengths of each economy. Such regional cooperation would definitely lead to stronger security coordination in the region. I am glad to note that despite certain bilateral issues preventing cooperation among some members, there is already healthy security coordination in many areas, such as drugs and arms control.

How will the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) impact Sri Lanka?

SIRISENA: The complementary economic developments in India and Sri Lanka will be further enhanced by the ETCA. A significant share of Sri Lankan exports enter India through ports in southern India, and a large share of the cargo is trans-shipped to ports on the Indian subcontinent. The ETCA will provide the opportunity to strengthen cooperation between our two countries, paving the way for an interrelated and integrated system of cooperation.

In coming to any trade agreement, we take care to ensure that both countries benefit from an agreement, by safeguarding sectors in which each country has a comparative advantage. The government understands the dynamics and will engage all groups to ensure that the best solution is reached. Sri Lanka will follow a very transparent process in entering a free trade agreement, which will be referred to the Parliament for approval. Ultimately, a trade agreement depends on implementation in practice.

In the medium-to-long term will deeper trade and investment integration create more opportunities and interest among foreign investors?

SIRISENA: The Indian middle class alone is many times the size of our entire population. Businesses in Sri Lanka cannot succeed by catering to our small domestic market, especially when we have this growing consumer market across from us. Sri Lanka is well positioned to attract global operations that want to tap into India. We have met many investors who are waiting to see what kind of integration we have with India, so that they can come and invest here, employ people and create exports for the Indian market.

What can be done to further develop the research and development segment in Sri Lanka?

SIRISENA: We consider the development of science and technology important in promoting economic development, though we cannot be satisfied with the achievements in these sectors so far. As I said at the Asia Cooperation Dialogue Summit in Bangkok, we are ready to take the lead as a prime mover in science, technology and innovation. We look forward to working closely with other Asian countries so that we may share knowledge and capabilities in this area. For this purpose, Sri Lanka will establish a regional centre for innovation in Colombo.

We aspire to become an innovation economy and are keen to develop a skilled human resource base. We are introducing extensive reforms in education to strengthen science, technology and innovation capacity among our youth. It is also important to keep up with the latest innovation to make sure that our exports are attractive to foreign markets.