Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean – a Geopolitical perspective from Sri Lanka and the  Role of the EU in the Indian Ocean Region(IOR) by Prof.Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
Posted on March 18th, 2018

Prof. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Prof. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, the Director General of the Institute of national Security Studies Sri Lanka(INSSSL),visiting Professor at the Northern Kentucky University for Geopolitics was invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, Quai d’Orsay on 6th March 2018. Prof.Abeyagoonasekera presented a paper on Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean – a Geopolitical perspective from Sri Lanka and the Role of the EU in the Indian Ocean Region(IOR)”,followed by a roundtable discussion Chaired by Dr.Frédéric Grare who is the Chargé de mission Asia, officials at Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence. Following is the full text of the speech:

Distinguished officers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ladies and Gentlemen,[1]

It is a great honour for me to speak at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France and I thank you for the kind invitation.

Let me begin by thanking President Macron for his kind comments sent to me about my book – Towards a better world order[2]. I am pleased to present my book to Dr.Frederic Grare today as well.

Today I will be speaking on the thematic issue of Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean – a Geopolitical perspective from Sri Lanka and the role of the EU in the IOR; a topic widely discussed in many international forums. A few days ago in Berlin, I also explained the geopolitical tension in the IOR and a few weeks from now I will be speaking in Chicago and Washington about the same subject, along with some regional experts.

Sri Lanka’s geostrategic position in the Indian Ocean:

As Napoleon once said, to know a nation’s geography is to know its foreign policy”.[3]

In terms of ‘geopolitical manometers’[4], Sri Lanka’s geographical position in the Indian Ocean has been the most significant driver of its foreign policy and arguably other countries’ foreign policy towards it, since ancient times. The Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch, French and the English have thus seen the importance of the Island’s geographical position. Today Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, delineated by President Sirisena, is an Asia-centric middle-path foreign policy”[5], stemming from the Island’s geography and its relationship with regional and extra-regional countries.

With regard to the relevance of Sri Lanka in terms of geopolitics, the analyst Robert Kaplan explains: It’s a great age in history to be a Chinese civil engineer; they are really building things the way the US built infrastructure in the 1930s and 50s. The opening up of Chinese built Hambanthota Port in Sri Lanka has real geopolitical significance”.[6] In fact, a century ago, Admiral Mahan saw the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean, followed by many other geopolitical scholars throughout history. In the present day, Harsh V.Pant further elaborates: The ‘Great Game of this century will be played on the waters of the Indian Ocean.[7]

Furthermore, Sri Lanka is geographically at the centre of sea lines of communication (SLOC), geo-strategically at the heart of Indian Ocean and therefore a super-connector”. At one of the initial Belt and Road conferences in Hong Kong, a few years ago, I referred to Sri Lanka as a super-connector” in the Indian Ocean (in a similar context to a trading hub) in comparison to the Island of Hong Kong located next to the massive geographical land mass of China. Notably, Sri Lanka has been mapped as an elongated Island even by ancient cartographers – stemming from Ptolemy of Alexandria[8], due to its rich trade with the West and the East.

From a historical perspective, the East of Sri Lanka, specifically the strategic port of Trincomalee, was of great interest to the French. On March 22nd 1672, the great French fleet arrived in Trincomalee with more than 2250 men on board with 251 guns, under the command of Jacob Blaquet de la Haye[9]; with hindsight seen as a strategic move to position French military power in the Indian Ocean. However, this manoeuvre was cut short by the Dutch presence and the interest in the Island.

Nevertheless, in the present day, Sri Lanka has managed to navigate its critical geographical location at the crossroads of the important sea lines of communication (SLOCs). The Island has thus displayed its catalytic ability in balancing three powerful spheres of influence: the regional hegemon in South Asia – India, the US and China. Due to this, Sri Lanka is playing a larger role in the South Asian Indian Ocean littorals, in order to to protect the proximate SLOCs and its maritime domain.

In terms of international relations, there is a marked geopolitical power shift from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indo-Pacific. Analysing geopolitical manometers, Sri Lanka faces the complex geography of the Indian subcontinent intertwined with India’s past of the Monroe doctrine mentality and Prime Minister Modi’s new vision for the region[10]. I have discussed this aspect in detail, in a chapter which I have contributed to, in the book The Modi Doctrine[11]. Additionally, with regards to international relations, one of the biggest setbacks in the region is the absence of the SAARC summit due to India-Pakistan tensions subverting regional forums such as these.

Nevertheless, policy-makers around the world including in the European Union (EU) ought to pay closer attention to the vast developments in the IOR. There is an increasing naval presence with military capabilities built up in various strategic positions along the IOR rim. Nations like Sri Lanka, sitting at the heart of SLOCs with large amounts of cargo and transhipment capacity will be significantly important for the existing and the emerging powers in this geopolitical backdrop.

Triple spheres of influence:

The tear drop shaped Island hanging off the southern tip of Indian subcontinent is faced with a triple sphere of influence. The Chinese sphere, Indian and the US as aforementioned. The Sri Lankan port of Hambantota was leased out to China for operations last year, just like Kyaukpyu Port in Myanmar[12]. India views these strategic indents in its territorial waters as an encirclement strategy by the Chinese, speculatively calling it a String of Pearls”[13]. While India is faced with fear of encirclement, the country is also investing to actively counter the Chinese sphere of influence in the region. Indian interest towards the Eastern port of Trincomalee and the Chinese built Mattala airport closer to the Hambantota port are clear examples of such an investment in the Sri Lankan context.

The Sri Lankan maritime forum – Galle Dialogue” – introduced by former Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa – has become another popular venue for discussion about the topics from strategic maritime partnerships” to collaborative approaches in the Indian Ocean” and thereby showcases Sri Lanka’s interest and role in the Indian Ocean.

In the Sri Lankan context, the last time a PLAN submarine was docked in Colombo[14], tensions arose with New Delhi and intense speculations were made from in strategic circles. New Delhi officially expressed their concern, reminding Sri Lanka that it should inform India first of such submarine dockings as it has a direct bearing on India’s national security. In response, Sri Lanka informed its neighbour that the PLAN submarine visit was not a knee jerk reaction to a Chinese request but a carefully calibrated action by the Government of Sri Lanka. The increased investment by Beijing in Sri Lankan infrastructure is a clear sign of the Chinese sphere of influence in the Island and Sri Lanka’s receipt of such influence.

The opening of the tallest tower in South Asia – the Lotus Tower”, built by the Chinese in Colombo, set off another widely discussed topic in India. This was over the concern of the antenna at the top of the tower for possible monitoring and surveillance by the Chinese through such a mechanism. Thus, the growing Indo-China tension is felt clearly across the region and in the Sri Lankan context, the Government position has been to find equilibrium between these two powers. Yet, to give equal space in the maritime domain will be a challenging task. Last year, China surpassed India in becoming the largest trading partner for Sri Lanka, thereby signalling a strategic shift. However, it can be contented that India, being the closer neighbour to Sri Lanka, has had a historic and stronger cultural relationship with the Island, especially with reference to the Kaveri Delta” sphere of influence from South India towards the north of Sri Lanka as well as the political influence from Tamil Nadu towards Sri Lankan politics.

Returning to the point about India’s Monroe doctrine mentality, I will draw reference from Jawaharlal Nehru’s selected works[15]. It can be argued from this frame of reference that India followed a similar model to the Monroe Doctrine which is to exclude extra regional powers from the vicinity of India and the IOR. This would constitute strategic thinking on the part of modern India’s determination to rid the subcontinent of residual colonial influence and exclude other powers from the entire South Asian region[16]. This is further explained by Bhabani Sen Gupta, as an underlying theme in Indian strategic thinking, where the presence of outside powers in India’s neighbourhood is illegitimate and therefore India’s neighbours must solely rely upon India as a regional manager and security provider[17]. Furthermore, the scholar K. Subrahmanyam expounds the fact that leadership in the Indian Ocean is part of India’s ‘manifest destiny[18].

On a regional level, India has resisted inviting Pakistan to join the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) or allowing China to become a full member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). On the other hand, India is building its massive naval fleet with 48 warships under construction – including one aircraft carrier, one nuclear submarine and six conventional submarines as well as a variety of destroyers, frigates and corvettes.[19] By 2027 the Indian naval capacity is projected to expand to 198 warships.[20]

When looking at the US sphere of influence, according to USPACOM Commander Harry Harris: the Indian Ocean matters to the United States, Sri Lanka matters to the United States, and the United States matters to Sri Lanka,”[21]. US interest in Sri Lanka and the surrounding South Asian maritime security architecture is felt with the growing Chinese influence in the South China Sea and the spill over influence towards the IOR. Presently, Sri Lanka is considered by the US as a contributor to the rules-based order in the Indian Ocean system, and a good example of a like-minded partner in the Indian Ocean Region.

Maritime Security and role for the EU in IOR:

Instability in some of the littorals of the IOR and the rise of new naval powers within the geopolitical power game are the key drivers for insecurity in the Indian Ocean. Maritime rivalry between India and China is visible across the Indian Ocean and felt clearly by nations like Sri Lanka. Modernization and expansion of China’s and India’s capabilities in the maritime domain to advance their military presence in the IOR makes the region vulnerable in terms of security and power-rivalries. The absence of a comprehensive multilateral agreement on maritime security in the Indian Ocean is a highly problematic issue in this context. Arguably, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) is for economic cooperation and not for security cooperation.  Nevertheless, the Galle dialogue and the IONS (an Indian initiative) bring together naval chiefs of a large number of littoral countries for discussions on security challenges in the IOR. However, forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) aimed at South-East Asia, with ministerial level representation explicitly addressing maritime security issues that involve both regional countries and extra-regional major powers is, in comparison, clearly lacking in the IOR. The Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) which commenced in 2016 by the India Foundation[22] with its inaugural in Singapore and followed last year in Colombo is arguably the only conference to address important issues of the IOR at both a ministerial and academic level; but has its own limitations due to the degree of extra regional representation. At the Indian Ocean conference in 2017 in Colombo, Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe emphasized that we remain convinced that a code of conduct that ensures the freedom of navigation in our Ocean will be an essential component of this vision”[23] .

Now let us examine how the EU could play a role in the Indian Ocean Region.

Fighting piracy, counter-terrorism and providing safe passage for the large amount of trade between the EU and IOR littorals is a high priority. Thus, the EU could assist IOR countries to establish and maintain a code of conduct – the essential component of the vision for a peaceful IOR.

In 1971, an ad-hoc committee was established with seven European members in the UN General Assembly’s Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace[24]. This Declaration called for Great Powers to curb further escalation and expansion of their military presence in the Indian Ocean[25]. Establishment of a system of universal collective security is also embedded in the Declaration. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake played an important role in this endeavour and thus today we should revisit this Declaration due to the geopolitical tension among Great Powers in the IOR – which has made the region unstable.

In this context, the EU should play an active and long-term role as a contributor to maritime security in the IOR, especially given the risk of emerging Great Power rivalries posing a fundamental threat to security in the IOR and its littoral states. To establish a rules-based ocean system of governance and a framework of multilateral maritime security, the EU could develop a strategic plan. This could be an initiative to work with the Indian Ocean’s littoral states to establish a track-II platform comparable to the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP)[26] for dialogue on maritime security in the IOR. Such a platform could provide the groundwork for preparing frameworks and mechanisms for cooperation amongst all IOR littorals.

The EU should coordinate closely with existing multilateral security initiatives such as the UN Ad-Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean and IOR-ARC as well as IONS and SAARC.

By taking such an active role in these areas, the EU could enhance security cooperation and strengthen security dialogue. An Island nation like Sri Lanka, which has a role to play in balancing the triple spheres of influence, fighting maritime piracy and ensuring a rules-based order in the Indian Ocean, could stand to benefit by a more active role played by the EU in the IOR. This would further reduce mistrust and the threat perceptions among actors in the IOR and its waters.

Thank you.

[1]Views expressed are the author’s own.

[2] Abeyagoonasekera, Asanga. Towards a Better World Order: Selected Writings and Speeches. 2015

[3] Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge Of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. First edition. New York: Random House 2012.

[4] Dorpalen, Andreas. The World of General Haushofer: Geopolitics in Action. Farrar & Rinehart, Incorporated, 1942.

[5] The Official Website of the President of Sri Lanka: Policy Statement delivered by President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the 8th Parliament of Sri Lanka on September 1, 2015” –

[6]Robert D. Kaplan on China’s Port Expansion in the Indian Ocean (Agenda), Stratfor, 2012 –

[7]Pant, Harsh V. Indian Foreign Policy: An Overview. Manchester University Press, 2016.

[8] Ptolomy’s World Map. The British Library –

[9] Arasaratnam, Sinnapah. Dutch Power in Ceylon 1658-1687. Djambatan 1958

[10] Australian Institute of International Affairs: India’s Monroe Doctrine is Dead. Mar 21st 2016 –

[11] Ganguly, Anirban. Chauthaiwale, Vijay. Sinha, Uttam Kumar. The Modi Doctrine: New Paradigms in India’s Foreign Policy. Wisdom Tree. 2018.

[12] Reuters: China to take 70 percent stake in strategic port in Myanmar – official. Oct 17th 2017 –

[13] Khurana, Gurpreet S. China’s ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean and Its Security Implications. Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses – Strategic Analysis Vol. 32, 2008 – Issue 1

[14] Reuters: Chinese submarine docks in Sri Lanka despite Indian concerns .Nov 2nd  2014 –

[15] Nehru, Jawaharlal. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru – Vol 3, Series 2 – Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1985

[16] Brewster, David. India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership. Routledge 2014

[17] Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies: Gujral Doctrine Security Dimensions of the Gujral Doctrine. Aug 2nd 1997 –

[18] Brewster, David. India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership. Routledge 2014

[19] Jane’s 360 Magazine

[20] Economic Times: Indian Navy aiming at 200-ship fleet by 2027. Jul 14th, 2015 –

[21] US Embassy in Sri Lanka: Remarks by Adm. Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command at Galle Dialogue

[22] India Foundation: Indian Ocean Conference 2016

[23] Lanka Business Online. Sri Lanka’s PM addresses Indian Ocean Conference 2017. Sept 1st 2017. –



[26] Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific –

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