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Priority for economic ties, trade and connectivity – President

by Gayan Abeykoon
February 12, 2024 1:09 am 0 comment

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an exclusive interview with WION’s (World Is One News) chief diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal in Perth, Australia, said that Sri Lanka will always give first priority to the security interests of India.

President Wickremesinghe thanked India for the economic support extended to Sri Lanka amid the 2022 economic crisis. Speaking to WION, he said that he is “thankful to India. Without India’s help we could not have survived and this is why we are also looking at closer relations between the two countries”.

The President also shared the news that plans are underway for the Indian Institute of Technology – Madras (IIT – Madras) to establish a campus in Sri Lanka, “most probably in Kandy”.

 

Here is the full transcript of the interview:

Q: India and Sri Lanka share a close relationship. This is a civilisational bond between the two countries. With me is the Sri Lankan President to talk about the India–Sri Lanka relationship and other things as well. My first question to you is how do you see the India–Sri Lanka relationship. What is your vision about this relationship?

A:  Indo-Lanka relations are improving and today we are looking at close economic ties and improving connectivity between the two countries. I think that’s the way to go.

 Q: But essentially, India was one country that came forward during the economic crisis with a bailout of almost US$ 4 billion. How do you see India’s support to your country?

A: We are thankful to India. Without India’s support we could not have survived and this is why we are also looking at closer relations between the two countries. Especially, trade and economic success is the way we have to go.

 Q: What is the current economic situation in your country and how have things improved in the past one year?

A: Well, we have gone ahead with the debt restructuring, we have completed it, it is now the official part. We have to have an agreement with the OCC [Official Creditor Committee].

In principle, they have agreed to what we have done [the debt restructuring]. The formal part is now taking place and after the formal agreement with the OCC, they will have to then come to formal agreements with all the creditor countries plus the other financial organisations, which have also been ignored in Sri Lanka debt negotiations.

 Q: And when will it be possible?

A: I think by about June or so it should be over hopefully.

 Q: Coming to regional security, India has to worry about the visits of the Chinese vessels to Sri Lanka and I believe some decisions have been taken by the Sri Lankan Government to not allow the visit of Chinese vessels. Can you talk about the visits and if any decision has been made like this?

A: What we have told India always is that we have kept Indian security in mind and we will not allow anything to happen that will be harmful to India’s security and these are all hydrographical vessels. So we have allowed them to come there. There have been other vessels from other countries that are allowed. We decided that this year, we will look at capacity-building for Sri Lanka and therefore now we are focusing on Sri Lanka building its own hydrological capacity by cooperating with others. As a result, we have said no ships from any country on hydrological matters can come to Sri Lanka, but if they are Navy ships that are coming in for visits, then we will allow them.

 Q: You will know about the visits of Chinese Navy ships?

A: Anyway, they have been coming to Sri Lanka. Indian, Chinese, Japanese, American ships come.

 Q: But do you think that China is trying to create a wedge between India and Sri Lanka somehow because India is worried about the visits and India is worried about the increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)? And that is something that many countries share as well?

A: Chinese ships have been coming to Sri Lanka over a period of time. And China has never tried to create a rift between India and Sri Lanka. They always say that we have to get along with India. There has never been an issue as far as we are concerned. The number of ships that have been coming has not increased, nor have they decreased. But we are also encouraging ships from other countries to come in, which have not been there earlier. Japan, India, Pakistan, the US. Yes, their ships have been coming. But we have asked many of the other European countries to come to Sri Lanka.

 Q: And the role played by the Chinese when it comes to debt restructuring. Have they been dragging their feet?

A: Well they agreed to the debt restructuring. They are not in the OCC though they attend the meeting. Their structure for this is different from the other countries. We have to deal with the China Development Bank mainly and also with the Export-Import (EXIM) Bank of China. Those are the two that we have to deal with. Most of the countries we have been dealing with are the government-led agencies.

 Q: Coming back to the India-Sri Lanka relationship, you started by pointing out that there are several aspects to connectivity. One is land connectivity and one of the decisions that was taken was to connect the two countries through a land bridge. What is the vision behind it? Has any step been taken by the Sri Lankan Government?

A: There are two connectivities we are looking at. First is the power connectivity. And that’s going on because Indian companies are investing in Sri Lanka’s power sector. Already Adani is out there. We are discussing power connectivity and we have come to an agreement that it should be an undersea cable. We will start working out the details. Similarly, as far as land connectivity is concerned, we have got to get a feasibility study. So we have appointed officials on both sides for coordination and there will be a feasibility study first and the environment study.

 Q: Connectivity has another aspect – that is financial connectivity. Universal Payment Interface (UPI) is something that has been talked about….

A: That has been going ahead. It should be implemented soon, but we will be discussing it in Colombo in the next two weeks.

 Q: Part of financial connectivity is the usage of the Indian Rupee. Will we see the usage of the Indian Rupee in Sri Lanka?

A: We want to see the usage of the Indian Rupee in Sri Lanka. Have no issue at all.

 Q: Has the trading started?

A: Not yet. But once it does, it will help tourism especially.

 Q: How have Indian tourists helped the Sri Lankan economy?

A: Tourism helps our economy a lot and Indian tourists coming in greater numbers have been good.

 Q: Part of the India-Sri Lanka relationship is the trade in local currency as you talked about and there is the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Have there been conversations regarding the FTA?

A: The FTA is operational. Now we are discussing how to advance the FTA to an Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA).

 Q: And what do you expect from India in terms of your development goals? Anything specific?

A: India has helped us financially, but we would like to see Indian investments in Sri Lanka and a new phase has been the decision that the IIT – Madras will establish a campus in Sri Lanka, most probably in Kandy. A Ministerial delegation visited India, and now we are in the process of identifying the locations. But we would like to take some existing buildings and start that off next year.

 Q: That is a significant educational connection, but there are other issues as well. Some irritants in the relationship like the fishermen issue. India has been raising it in the past. Is there any sort of reaching out between the two sides so that there is a resolution of this issue?

A: Tamil Nadu fishermen are coming into our area, it is a big issue with our fishermen and we are discussing it. We want to conclude it sometime this year because we cannot have them coming in all the time.

 Q: Going to the Maldives, where you were present when the oath-taking ceremony for the new President took place. How do you see the current Government in Maldives which has not been very pro-India, in many senses they have been running an anti-India movement as well. What is your view about the current dispensation in Maldives?

A: It is a new Government that is settling down. So we have to give them some time to come to grips and especially at the moment there is a struggle between the President and Parliament also. So we are watching what happens there.

 Q: We are here in Perth with the Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) taking place. Sri Lanka is an important country in the Indian Ocean. You have a vast Exclusive Economic Zone as well. How can Sri Lanka play an important role in the stability of the wider region?

A: We have always been pushing for Freedom of Navigation (FON) in the Indian Ocean, that this should be free of Big Power rivalry, and close cooperation between the countries. Now that Sri Lanka is Chair [of the Indian Ocean Rim Association/IORA] that is what we are seeking.

 Q: What is your view about the situation in the Red Sea because it impacts the economic security of many countries, including Sri Lanka?

A: The Red Sea is vital to us. The Suez Canal is vital to us. The Colombo Port will develop only if the Suez Canal is available. In the 1967 War, some ships were sunk in the Suez Canal and it took us 10 years, the Colombo Port was not operative. So as far as the war in Gaza is concerned, we want the war to come to an end and hostages to be released.

We are in fact asking for a Palestinian State in five years but also guarantees for the security of Israel. That is separate from what is happening in the Red Sea because in the Red Sea the attacks are by Houthi rebels. And we recognize the Government of Yemen, so this should not take place and therefore we are cooperating with the other countries to ensure [the Red Sea] is kept safe.

 Q: Coming back to the tourism aspect which plays an important role. What is the progress on the plan for a Ramayana circuit that connects India and Sri Lanka?  

A: Basically it is the tourist companies and others who are doing it, but we told them that will also help, we are planning out more areas. So we will develop it. We are also looking at a Hindu trail… Lord Shiva because there are a lot of Shiva temples there. There are the four Eswarra temples and Dikshina Kailash. So we feel there can be a second one also.

 Q: We saw the inauguration of the Ram Temple in India. What is your view and any plans of a high-level delegation visiting the Ayodhya Ram Temple, including from your Government?

A: I think some of our people went for the function. We expected the Ram Temple to be built once the Supreme Court case was over. It was a matter of when it was going to be done. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Government have done it.

 Q: Another aspect is Canada. We have seen the India-Canada row. We have also seen comments by the Canadian Government on the situation in Sri Lanka. What is your view about the Canadian Government making these remarks?

A: We have said we do not want vote-getting politics in the way and we are not interested in dealing with it. So our contacts with Canada at the moment are minimal.

 Q: When you made the speech at the IOC in Perth, you mentioned the US role and your comments were very sharp. You pointed out the ill-advised decisions by the Americans in the region. What role do you think is being played by the US in the region? If you can characterize it?

A: I call it ill-advised because of their backing the Gaza War and the bombing. No, I mean, everyone would expect the US to stand with Israel, when Israel is attacked. I do not think there is an issue on this. But we have a major Islamic arc in the Indian Ocean, and many of them are friendly with the US Government rather than Iran, but this is going to put pressure on them. Russia has come in now. Russia is a key player in the western Indian Ocean. So it is a setback for the US.

 Q: How do you see the Russian role in the region?

A: Russia is improving its economic role and it is making political contact with all countries. And even militarily, they are having Naval exercises. So in a way, they have not broken Russia.

 Q: So moving to a multilateral dimension, UN Security Council (UNSC) reforms are much talked about. What is your view, and what is your take on India being at the high table?

A: Now we feel there should be reforms, it must be done. India should be in the UNSC. But we want overall discussion where we, the smaller countries, also have a say. But I cannot see that discussion taking place at the moment.

 Q: Do you think that it is going to take some time because there are elements who are trying to stop or delay the process?

A: It will take time.

 Q: We saw India hosting the G20 summit last year, and the African Union (AU) became a Permanent Member of the G20 under the Indian Presidency. How do you see India engaging with Africa and your perspective as to how do you plan to engage with Africa as well?

A: India has been engaging with Africa for a long time. Many Indian trading families are there in Africa – in East Africa, in Mauritius, in South Africa, even Mahatma Gandhi was there. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned we are reaching out to East Africa, South Africa. We are reaching out first to the countries on the Indian Ocean coast but we are also looking at West Africa. We have to develop those relations.

 Q: Your view about the Indo-Pacific? This is a vision which is backed by several countries in the region.

A: We are more focused on the Indian Ocean, so the ASEAN outlook is what we like, because we are basically an Indian Ocean country and links with the Pacific have been more with the Asian nations, which have been also ties going through land up to China. We have had ties in the old days, now it is extended to Japan and Korea. We do not go beyond that.

 Q: What is your view about the QUAD – the four countries coming together and working on several aspects including the humanitarian situation in the region?

A: The QUAD is one agency there, but how they are going to work it to cooperate is for them. The question is that when the Indo-Pacific was made, no one knew where the boundaries were. Some wanted it on the western Indian Ocean and Premier Modi said it should go from Africa to the shores of the American continent, and then the ASEAN came with a new outlook. So, we are looking at the Indian Ocean and India. We feel Indian Ocean countries either through the IORA or something else, have to get together because our outlook is quite different from that of the Pacific.

 Q: Moving forward to the domestic aspects of your country. Elections are happening this year?

A: Yes, both Presidential and Parliamentary Elections.

Q: How optimistic are you that hopefully you will be back?

A: For me to be back, I must contest.

  Q: And do you plan to, Sir?

A:  I have come here to put the economy in order, my first duty is to focus on that and to get Sri Lanka out of bankruptcy.

 Q: Do you think you have done a good job? What is your view about the economy in terms of your tenure, because you ultimately were the face of the crisis in terms of the emergence of Sri Lanka back to normality?

A: Well, I am quite satisfied. I feel we will be able to do this.

 Q: You will be able to do this. Another thing is the implementation of the 13th Amendment, something that India has also been talking about. What is the way forward?

A: We will hold the Provincial Council (PC) elections next year. As I announced in my speech when I opened the new session of Parliament, we want to give each province its own economy. So like in India, that economies will compete with each other, which is to our benefit to be very, very competitive economies.

Those provinces should handle their economic and social development within the national policy framework. In this respect, we said we are prepared to give the concurrent powers – most of it – or whatever is required, whatever they want to the PCs, so that we are moving on. There has been a request by some of the groups…minority groups. So as far as I am concerned, as far as we are concerned, we will not oppose it, but it is a matter for all parties to agree to or not, not  me and the Government and there are so many parties in Parliament at the moment.

 Q: In the regional aspect there are several groupings. One is BIMSTEC. In fact, its summit is planned for this year. What is your vision when it comes to this specific grouping?

A: We have to fast track the integration. We are a bit slow on it. But we have been talking to Prime Ministers – I spoke with Prime Minister Modi and also Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, also on the Bay of Bengal as a cruise zone. But we have to basically fast track it.

 Q: And do you think SAARC as a grouping is dead?

A: SAARC at the moment? No. We have not buried it or anything. We have not put it into the funeral parlour, but certainly the political side is not active. But I must say some of the other areas like culture are going ahead, maybe we should focus on the non-political issues there.

 Q: For Sri Lanka as a country, what is the future in terms of domestically and regionally the role it can play in terms of providing stability to this region, which has several challenges and Big Power rivalry as well?

A: We want to keep the Big Power rivalry out of the Indian Ocean, that means they should stay out. They are already there… the US is there, Japan, China all have ports to operate, but there should not be a rivalry which will in any way have an adverse impact on the Indian Ocean.

 Q: How do you see the BRICS grouping?

A: BRICS is expanding. Especially with Saudi Arabia, Iran, you have the African countries and one more from Latin America and that is good. I know a larger group has applied, but it is better to expand slowly. It shows the Global South is also trying to get a monetary union together.

 Q: And the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)?

A: You can see central Asia opening up and the SCO is going to be important. You all will be having the Mumbai-Iran-Moscow line, it should be good to get into that part of Europe, instead of using the Canal route.

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