Viewpoint: Ranil Wickremesinghe 

Large populations, which have previously been seen as an economic burden, are now seen as marketplaces for products, services and ideas. Around 4bn of the world’s population is in Asia. This represents not only a marketplace for products and ideas, but also a marketplace for futuristic imagination, invention and innovation.

The Asian Development Bank has stated that “Asia is in the middle of a historic transformation. If it continues to follow its recent trajectory, by 2050 its per capita income could rise six-fold in purchasing power parity terms to reach Europe’s levels today.” This would make an additional 3bn Asians affluent by current standards. By nearly doubling its share of global GDP to 52% by 2050, Asia would regain the dominant economic position it held some 300 years ago.

Such historic and contemporary shifts and dynamics in global power mean that we live in a transforming world: old powers die; new players emerge; future balances are fashioned; and former cycles are reinforced. The global order established at the end of the last century consisted of the Western world, the Asia Pacific and the G8. The Indian Ocean, which was the main sea lane for East-West shipping, was not in the equation.

Today, Asian economic growth is tightening linkages with the Middle East and Africa. Indian Ocean sea lanes carry approximately half the world’s containerised cargo, two-thirds of its oil shipments and one-third of its bulk cargo. Our economies have a rich resource base, accounting for nearly 17% of global oil reserves, 28% of proven natural gas assets, 35.5% of global iron production and 28% of global fish capture, and its growing population accounts for 35% of the world’s population.

This global power shift has brought the Indian Ocean to the forefront of the global stage. Competition has led to a number of trade and infrastructure initiatives sponsored by China and Japan, as well as by India. Before, the Indian Ocean was considered to be of limited strategic importance. However, its significance is growing, such that a new concept of the Indo-Pacific is emerging. It is necessary to maintain the distinct identity of the Indian Ocean within a larger Indo-Pacific. The interests of the smaller states are best served by advocating for and upholding a rules-based order in the region.

The Indian Ocean thus requires a common understanding that will ensure peace and stability regionwide, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). There is also a need to build a regional framework for both trade and security, while ensuring that the region remains free, open and inclusive. Consequently, the Indo-Pacific should be a functional concept, the architecture for a multi-polar region and the first step to containing tension in the Indo-Pacific, with its patchwork regional politics under different umbrellas.

Furthermore, if we are to closely integrate the markets of Asia and Africa, we have to uphold a multilateral trading system. The establishment of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is a prerequisite that will give ASEAN a key role in the Indo-Pacific.

As strengthening UNCLOS is imperative for the security of smaller states, Sri Lanka brought together 40 littoral states and major maritime users for a conference in October 2018. It provided a platform for regional dialogue, initiated conversations on issues relating to UNCLOS, and laid the foundation for further confidence-building measures. For Sri Lanka, organising this conference was about reclaiming its longstanding tradition of leadership. Beginning in 1951, we organised the Colombo Plan Conference, the Asian Powers Conference and meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement, and have called for other meetings from time to time.

With our experience in organising conferences, together with our experience in the UNCLOS, we are, in a sense, returning to an area of international law that we have played a key role in creating. It is our contribution to an international, rules-based order that will facilitate stability and prosperity in the coming decades.

The above is adapted from a speech given by the Prime Minister at the Oxford Union on October 8, 2018.