Sri Lanka is an island nation with a recorded history of over 2500 years.
Since time immemorial, Sri Lanka has been known to the travelers of the ancient world as a hub in the Indian Ocean, who identified the country with many names like Lanka, Serendib and Ceylon.
Travelers like the 13th Century Muslim Scholar Ibn Battuta and 4th Century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fah Hien have described the glorious past of my country in vivid detail.
During the colonial era, since 1505, the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British have held a foothold in Sri Lanka.
Contacts with the United States started when American merchant ships from New England called at the Galle harbor around the same time that the new American Republic adopted its Constitution.
All those visitors recognized my country as an excellent trading hub and knew our land was endowed with precious gems, varieties of spices and other bounties of nature, that included elephants and exotic flora. There were several entrepot locations around the Sri Lankan sea board.
Given the importance and popularity of the location, cartographers of the ancient world depicted Sri Lanka much larger than its actual size. The map of Ptolemy in the first Century AD is probably the best example.
Sri Lanka neither existed nor evolved in isolation in the ancient world.
It is recorded that Sri Lankan Kings sent envoys to the Royal court of Roman Emperor Augustus.
The people of Sri Lanka, as islanders, since ancient times, have been influenced by several waves of external interactions that led to the exchange, not only of goods but also ideas and knowledge with travelers and traders passing through or visitors from lands close and far. Some traders and travellers even settled in Sri Lanka, making our country their home.
As a result, Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation. Sri Lanka benefited from the message of the Buddha who lived and taught in Northern India. Arab traders brought with them the teachings of Prophet Mohammed. It is believed that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion,visited Sri Lanka in 1511. Ancient crosses found in Sri Lanka, including in Anuradhapura point to the existence of Christians, perhaps Persian Christians of St Thomas.
The beauty and wealth of the Island had caught the imagination of Arab writers to such an extent that the land they referred to as ‘Serendib’ was incorporated into the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. They believed that Adam lived there when he was exiled from Paradise. Even today, a Holy Mountain in Sri Lanka, 7,300 feet in height, called Siri Pada or Adam’s Peak, is venerated by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. A depression at the Summit of the Mountain that resembles a footprint is considered by the Muslims as Adam’s. The same footprint is venerated by Buddhists as that of the Buddha; by Hindus as that of Shiva; and by Christians as that of St. Thomas the Apostle.
In our world, the seas cover seven-tenths (70%) of the globe. Six-tenths (60%) of our borders are sea coast. Nine out of ten people (90%) on the planet live on the coasts. And Around 90% of world trade is carried by international shipping.
Seaborne trade continues to expand, bringing benefits for consumers across the world through competitive freight costs and growing efficiency of shipping.
We are all aware that the Ocean is a bountiful resource not only for fish but for energy and minerals which require well managed and rule based exploitation. The concept of “blue economy” therefore, has evolved with a view to upholding sustainable development of the oceans to benefit all, in particular, littoral countries.
It is clear that the world needs peaceful oceans to sustain its benefits in the ever growing blue economy.
I was listening to Vice President Joe Biden at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, last year on Graduation day when a Sri Lankan Navy officer was among those who graduated. In his inspiring speech at the passing out parade of that prestigious academy, Vice President Biden cautioned that the oceans continue to be an arena of potential conflict, and reminded that as the predominant sea power in the world, the US is required to keep peace in the oceans.
He added, that, as a result of US policy of rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific region, 60 percent of the United States Naval forces will be stationed in the Asia Pacific by 2020. And Hawaii, no doubt, will be at the centre of that expansion, and will be even more important for those of us who live in the Asia-Pacific region.
Sri Lanka has the benefit of the vast ocean around us over which we enjoy exclusive economic rights. The country is also situated on the world’s busiest shipping lane. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for our nation, which is situated right in the middle of the Orient between East and West.
In fact, on my arrival in Washington, when I visited the Headquarters of National Geographic, I observed two giant 18th century maps, one depicting the Occident and the other, the Orient. And right in the middle of the Orient, staring right at me, was Sri Lanka.
We are equidistant between Europe and the Far East as well. This strategic location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean is a geographical feature that made Sri Lanka a maritime hub since ancient times. And just as we played an important role in ancient times that led to Ptolemy featuring Sri Lanka several times larger than its actual size, we are keen now, having achieved peace and stability, to reassume an important role as a Hub in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka takes the security of sea lanes and maritime security in the oceans around us, seriously.
We are eager to work with the maritime powers of the Indian Ocean and beyond, to make our oceans secure for unimpeded commerce and peaceful navigation. We are determined, as it is in our interest, to work with the maritime powers of the region to ensure that the Indian Ocean is conflict free. We will therefore work with the maritime powers of the region with commitment to prevent conflict, combat terrorism and piracy and assist to harmonize geo-strategic complexities.
As a manifestation of our commitment to such efforts, the Sri Lanka Navy now holds the annual “Galle Dialogue”, an international maritime Conference, that provides a platform for all stakeholders of the Indian Ocean and those connected with the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, to exchange views, on how we can cooperate to make the Indian Ocean maritime domain peaceful and secure.
In the ever changing global market place, where goods and services are required to be channeled across the world swiftly for the benefit of consumers, service and market hubs have become an essential component in a global network of trade and business.
As a result, just like in the ancient world, hubs are required to drive trade and commerce, contributing to prosperity along the way.
However, we all recognize that such hubs require certain specific qualities.
-A hub most have appropriate infrastructure. It needs human talent and resources to support and must have easy and quick access.
-Most importantly, a hub city or nation must provide a stable and a peaceful space.
On the basis of such qualities, there are several hubs in the world that we recognise as important: New York, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and others, all with bustling ports nearby.
Centred on the City of Colombo and its deep water Port, Sri Lanka too can assume such a status.
The Colombo Port is the busiest trans-shipment port in South Asia. Over 70 percent of cargo trans-shipped in the Port is for India which lies just 20 miles away from Sri Lanka.
In fact, in 2015, India has recorded one of the strongest GDP growth figures in the world. Sri Lanka is not far behind.
And Sri Lanka is in the proximity of the other main growth engines in Asia like, China, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Sri Lanka intends to broaden the existing Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement. In fact the Free Trade Agreement between India and Sri Lanka was the first for both countries when it was signed in 1998. Sri Lanka enjoys a Free Trade Agreement with Pakistan, and is now working towards such an Agreement with China.
A hub requires appropriate infrastructure of quality. The Colombo Port has expanded to become a deep water and hub Port.
The newly built deep-water Hambantota port near the ever busy East-West sea lane is already doing vehicle transshipment and is an ideal location for export industries. Passenger cruise ships have just commenced calling at this port in addition to the Colombo Port.
After almost thirty years of conflict, peace has now been consolidated in Sri Lanka. Our democracy, the oldest modern democracy in Asia, has been reinvigorated after a peaceful and people-led political transition in January 2015.
The new unity Government comprising of the two main political parties in the country, led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is promoting rehabilitation and reconstruction in areas affected by the recent conflict. Sri Lanka has bolstered its age-old democracy by firmly re-establishing the independence of the judiciary, combating corruption, and allowing a free and vibrant media to flourish.
In addition, the Government is working with all stakeholders in the country as well as the international community, in particular with the United Nations to establish mechanisms for truth-seeking, justice, and reparations to give solace to all those who suffered during long years conflict and promote reconciliation with a firm objective of guaranteeing non-recurrence.
The government will soon embark on drafting a new constitution which will address the requirements of a modern, progressive nation with provisions aimed at addressing the grievances of all communities living in the Island and promote social justice.
These initiatives have progressed remarkably well and in fact, after 43 years, a US State Secretary visited Sri Lanka last May.
During his visit, Secretary Kerry, while assuring support of the United States for a reconciled, democratic and prosperous Sri Lanka, complimented the people of Sri Lanka for their commitment to reclaim Sri Lanka’s traditions of critical debate, a free press and an independent civil society.
When Ambassador Samantha Power, the Cabinet rank US Ambassador to the United Nations, visited Sri Lanka, late last year, she said “Sri Lanka really stands out as a place and a people who have given the world great hope.”
Coupled with political transformation, the Government has embarked on economic transformation that promotes growth with equity, as well as transparency in business facilitation. Measures taken to promote fiscal discipline aimed at reducing the overall budget deficit and government debt burden will ensure financial market stability.
To facilitate investments that would promote hub status, total foreign ownership of a business is allowed with no restrictions on repatriation of earnings.
Safety of foreign investments is guaranteed by the Constitution with Investment Protection and Double Taxation Relief Agreements with over 25 countries. And Sri Lanka implements strong intellectual property law in line with WIPO Regulations.
It is in this context that Sri Lanka’s potential as a services hub become apparent: a niche manufacturing destination to produce goods which plug into regional and global value chains, particularly light engineering; and a location for high-value agricultural products such as fruits, vegetables and dairy, both to service the rapidly growing tourism sector and for exports, especially, to the Middle Eastern and Indian markets.
A tangible example of infrastructure improvement is the Western Province Megapolis Project. Launched just last month, this development will also cover several cities in the area around Colombo, and, in the South West of the country. There will be a financial district, as well as zones dedicated to logistics, industry, IT and entertainment. By 2030, the project area is expected to have a population of 8.5 million people with a per capita income of US$ 30,000 as compared with today’s national per capita income of US$ 3,800.
There will be a major role for the private sector as well as public/private partnerships in implementing these projects and for laying the groundwork for the future of the economy in general.
The private sector is to be the engine of growth with exports and FDI playing vital roles.
The Government will further improve the ease of doing business, trade policy and trade facilitation.
Industrialization and urbanization as key drivers of modernization will create 45 new Industrial Parks around the country which will be developed and managed by the private sector. Five second-tier cities will be developed, as part of the programme to promote urbanization through Sri Lanka’s regions.
A modern economy requires smart people to manage it and more people to power it. Though Sri Lanka already has an educated human resource base with the highest rate of literacy in South Asia and a very high physical quality of life in terms of Health Indicators, we are now upgrading education, training and skills to create a human resource base which can support a competitive and rapidly modernizing economy which is essential.
Moreover, by adopting right policies to support small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) and agriculture, Sri Lanka’s new prosperity will be shared among its people, in line with the newly agreed Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.
A commercial and trade hub in the modern world needs facilities for Rest and Recreation. Geographically the size of West Virginia and our population about the same size as Australia’s, Sri Lanka is endowed with unparalleled natural beauty. Surrounded by warm sea waters with long sandy beaches, and a picturesque hill country with naturally climate controlled tea gardens, world renowned exotic tropical forests with abundant fauna and flora, including over 6,000 wild elephants (the largest land mammal in the world), and blue whales (the largest sea mammal in the world) roaming close by the Eastern and Southern seas of the country, Sri Lanka is truly a paradise on earth . Ancient historical sites of Sri Lanka include several world cultural heritage sites, including the largest brick building in the ancient world in the fourth century AD, an ancient giant Buddhist Stupa, built, brick by brick. Though small in size, our island of 25,332 square miles (65,610 square km) offers something for everyone including the history buff.
Tourism in Sri Lanka is now growing at an exponential rate. Infrastructure to accommodate this growth is developing fast with hotels of several international hospitality chains engaged already in this effort.
Sri Lanka’s cultural traditions that respect the environment are embedded in the psyche of our people. This creates a groundswell of public opinion in favour of sustainable development. In the wake of the Paris Climate Conference, Sri Lanka is committed to achieving 20% renewable energy usage by 2030, over and above the current 35% of hydropower. Environmental sustainability is central to Sri Lanka’s development plans.
Sri Lanka has had direct experience with several aspects of international migration. About 10% of Sri Lankans work as temporary migrants abroad and as a result, the country has gained experience in dealing with associated opportunities and challenges. As Sri Lanka becomes fully integrated in to the world economy as a hub for shipping, trade and commerce as well as for financial and service industries, this experience will make it easy to manage the human resource base compatible with industry requirements.
In the current international environment where many locations are becoming insecure and volatile or environmentally challenged, Sri Lanka is at peace and has consolidated democracy, and revived economic growth, with emphasis on a green economy.
Sri Lanka now stands ready for take-off and to play its full role as a responsible member of the global community, as hub nation that serves itself, the region and the world beyond for our common prosperity.