August, 1, 2022
SL is located at the centre of the “Lakidva Sea” which was renamed “Indian Ocean” by the Portuguese who entered in 1505. Shipping history indicates that Prince Vijaya set sail from South India with 700 men on the day the Buddha attained Nirvana. If it was today, Vijaya may sail towards Australia looking for Greener pastures despite Australian warning not to come there by boat. However, Sri Lankans weren’t bothered. Vijaya docked and made history with support from the influential Lankan girl in the “Apparel” industry. Then came Admiral Zheng He of Great China heading a fleet of mega ships connecting SL to international trade but with no intentions of colonization. Sri Lankans worked with the powerful navigator to established one of the most stable governments ever ( early 1400s AD).
A century later (1505AD) was the Portuguese, Dutch and the British who respectively displayed their naval supremacy to destabilize states, colonize them and obtained natural resources. Some Sri Lankans were concerned but most weren’t. With the colonization; Colombo, Galle and Trincomalee developed as strategic ports and even after independence the British were reluctant to release Trincomalee to Sri Lankan control. Nearby in the Indian Ocean British granted independence to Mauritius islands without Diego Garcia and leased it to the USA to operate a military base (as in Okinawa, Japan). Sri Lankans weren’t bothered about it either. Much earlier when the British deported Ehelepola Adikarama to the Mauritius to prevent SL attempting to form a stable government, SL didn’t really care and the man breathed his last in Mauritius (Ref. Ceylon History).
The 21st Century
USA which did not exist in 1403AD is now sailing the international waters along with the traditional European powers and the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) which is symbolically the successor of Admiral Zheng’s mega fleet. Very soon US may have to handover Diego Garcia back to Mauritius as per the international court order or negotiate a new deal with them to continue the military base to support Indo-Pacific regional plans. Sri Lankans were discussing about Indian organizations investing in the Colombo port recently and there is similar concern about the management of Trincomalee port along with the oil tanks complex. China has also invested in the Colombo and Hambantota ports on the invitation of SL government. President Mahinda Rajapaksa once said that as a child he used to watch hundreds of ships passing Hambantota fishing village and always wanted to build a port at Hambantota to attract those ships. This idea was highlighted when the CBK government was struggling to win the 2001 general election. Although CBK’s party lost the election MR moved forward with the idea. He first tried the Canadians and then the Chinese to construct his dream port during his second term as President. MR’s attempt shall attract international wealth into SL in the coming centuries if properly managed.
Ships are coming to MR’s port
At a recent event in India, USAID’s Samantha Power was worried about the Hambantota air port but didn’t talk about the sea port. When the sea port was being constructed MP Dayasiri Jayasekera was also worried about rocks in the sea bed but once big ships started arriving the discussion gradually moved to the ships that are coming to Hambantota. The latest is the Chinese scientific research vessel ‘Yuan Wang 5’ docking at the Hambantota port managed by China Merchant Ports in August.
Those who are worried about Chinese Navy vessels should know that PLAN has many fully equipped hospital ships which sail to nations that need medical assistance to save lives. Sri Lankans should be happy that Hambantota port is becoming attractive. Sri Lankans shouldn’t worry whether the Chinese research ship is a threat to India or USA. Sri Lankans should know that international experts are very much aware of the capacity of the Chinese vessel than the average Sri Lankans. SL should do its best to operate Free Trade Ports to attract more FDIs to take the country out of the crisis. Yuan Wang 5 isn’t the only research ship that has come to SL. Many such must be passing SL waters conducting the research on a regular basis. Recently SL government allowed small ships to deliver essentials from South India to Jaffna. Neither the Chinese nor the US is worried about it. China, India and USA are very strong trading partners. Being an island nation with no natural resources, SL has to ensure more inward remittances from all possible channels. If not other ports in the Indian Ocean rim will grab the opportunities.
Wise navigator work well with winds and waves!
(The writer is an Academic and a Broadcaster. Views expressed are personal and may not necessarily be the views of his affiliations.)