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Posted in Asian News
August 6, 2022

It’s time Sri Lanka had a National Maritime Policy, says naval researcher

By P.K.Balachandran    

Colombo, August 6 (newsin.asia): In his paper entitled Maritime Strategy for National Development: Sri Lankan perspective published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the  8 th., International  Research Conference held at the Kotelawala Defense Academy,Com. Rohan Joseph of the Sri Lanka Navy strongly urged the Sri Lankan authorities to formulate a comprehensive and long-term “National Maritime Strategy” which is different and broader in scope than a “Military Maritime Strategy.”

In 2016, Com. Joseph had drafted and launched  “Sri Lanka’s Maritime Strategy for the period up to 2025.” But follow-up action on this document is yet to take place, though, with each passing year, the need for such a comprehensive and long-term policy has been mounting. Global conflicts are moving rapidly towards the Indian and Pacific Oceans and Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean.

While the world’s powers are aware of the strategic importance of Sri Lanka, the island’s rulers have been ignoring this from the time of independence in 1948. Matters were altogether different when the British ruled the island. During War War II, after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, the British rulers gave the defense of Sri Lanka or Ceylon, the highest importance in the fight against the Japanese. British naval and air defenses in the island were dramatically increased and Peradeniya became the HQ of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in South East Asia, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten.

But all this faded from memory until the early 1980s, when the Tamil militants began to use the Palk Strait to do gun-running. According to Com. Joseph, the then President J.R.Jayewardene wanted the navy to be strengthened but the army-dominated Lankan military establishment quashed his plan. It was only much later, well into the 2000s, that the government under Mahinda Rajapaksa gave a significant role for the navy to choke the LTTE’s vital maritime supply lines. The war could not have been won without the navy’s playing the stellar role it did from 2008 onwards. Some other countries had given equipment and intelligence which enabled the Lankan navy to operate in the high seas to destroy the LTTE’s floating armories. The navy’s own Small Boat Squadron fought the LTTE near the island’s shores using unconventional but effective tactics.

However, after the war was won in May 2009, no new doctrine was evolved to face post-war threats and threats from the rapidly changing geo-political and geo-military environment. This was so despite the fact that the only threat that Sri Lanka faced post-war, was  from the sea, Com. Joseph points out. And these threats were not just from other navies. More importantly, these were from smugglers, drug and human traffickers, illegal fishers and possibly, seaborne terrorists.

Due to India’s insistence, Sri Lanka has entered into a trilateral agreement with India and the Maldives for Maritime Domain Awareness. Com. Joseph says that international tie-ups are absolutely necessary because no nation can fight these new threats alone in the vast ocean.  Then there are other issues like marine pollution, maritime disasters, and search and rescue to attend to.

Military and National Maritime Strategy

Broadly speaking, maritime strategy has two components, the defense of the sea and the defense of the “littoral”. The “littoral” comprises areas on land which are susceptible to influence from the sea. The littoral covers three quarters of the world’s population, hosts over 80% of the world’s capital cities and nearly all of the marketplaces for international trade, Com. Joseph points out.

The navy is expected to ensure “sea denial” to the enemy. And sea denial stems from “sea control”. But maritime strategy should also encompass other vital areas, including the defense of the country’s economy, environment, and the country’s social and political systems. These are covered by the National Maritime Strategy while the Military Maritime Strategy covers fighting in the sea, playing the policing role and even diplomacy.

Quoting Thompson, W.T, and Cooper, A. (1978), Power projection: A net assessment of the US and Soviet capabilities, Com Joseph says: “National maritime strategy incorporates all arms of government and is usually focused on marine areas out to the edge of the exclusive economic zone or the seabed boundary while the military maritime strategy denotes the involvement of all arms; sea, land and air which can influence operations or activities in the marine environment.”

Sri Lanka needs a National Maritime Strategy for the following reasons, says Com. Joseph: According to the National Aquaculture Development Authority (NARA), in 2011, around 86% of Lanka’s fish supply came from the sea. The recent discovery and exploration of oil and gas reserves could easily open a host of new economic opportunities he adds.  Oil and/or gas potential exists in the Mannar Basin to the west, Cauvery Basin to the north, Bengal fan deposits to the east, and newly identified sedimentary basins to the south of the island. There is also “potential gas hydrates zone offshore Sri Lanka covering an area of approximately 50,000 km2, to produce 364 x 10*(14) Kwh of energy (SAARC Energy center, 2010),” he adds.

Sri Lanka is located at one of the most important international shipping routes. Apart from providing required infrastructure facilities and other services to ships that are calling on its ports, the influence these ships have on the Sri Lankan economy is quite significant. “According to Central Bank report 2013, compared to the corresponding period of 2012, total cargo handling and container handling increased by 0.9 per cent to 44.1 million MTs and by 1.5 per cent to 2.9 million TEUs, respectively. Meanwhile, transhipment handling improved significantly by 3.8 per cent to 2.1 million TEUs reflecting Sri Lanka’s attractiveness to large shipping lines that prefer to deliver cargo to a transhipment hub and subsequently deliver to smaller ports in the region. This is a major area of national development of Sri Lanka,” Com.Joseph points out.

Further, there is vast scope in ship repair and building, he says. “Sri Lankan professionals are capable of designing and building both aluminium and steel hull vessels and specialized in high speed patrol boats indigenously.

Sri Lanka also has scope in the offshore energy sector support vessels “A grand strategy is of utmost importance to fit these sectors to reap potential economic benefits closely integrated with other entities,” Com.Joseph says.

Delimitation of the Continental Shelf (DECOM) as provided in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was initiated as far back as 1999 by Sri Lanka and was completed in 2009. “The submission was made in respect to a part of the area of three million square Km of a submarine fan of sediments in the Bay of Bengal. This unique feature spans an area of 3000 Km in length and 830 to 1430 Km in width. Sri Lanka’s claim of the extended continental shelf is about 20 times the land area.”

“This is indeed a huge area for a small country like Sri Lanka. Conducting surveillance, scientific research, infrastructure expansion etc. are among the many other important aspects that Sri Lanka will need to look through a broader maritime strategic plan that is essentially based on a Grand National maritime strategy,” Com.Joseph submits.”

END

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