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Deepening China-Sri Lanka Belt and Road Cooperation and Facilitating Win-Win Cooperation in the Indian Ocean

2020-01-13 20:02:03       source:NISCSS

Speech by President Wu Shicun of NISCSS at the international symposium “Belt and Road Initiative and Indo-Pacific Strategy: Opportunities and Challenges ”


(Colombo, January 13, 2020)


Good morning! It’s my great pleasure that China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) co-sponsors the international symposium “BRI and the Indo-Pacific Strategy: Opportunities and Challenges” alongside the Pathfinder Foundation of Sri Lanka. On behalf of the co-sponsors, I would like to extend my warm welcome to all distinguished guests.

Also, I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some of my observations on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) cooperation between China and Sri Lanka and the Indo-Pacific strategy.

I. Overview of the BRI Cooperation between China and Sri Lanka

Bordering the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was a major maritime transport hub along the Maritime Silk Road in ancient times and continues to connect the Middle East, Europe, Africa and East Asia. When the BRI was proposed in 2013, Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to  actively align its development strategy with the BRI. As a result, Sri Lanka is deeply involved in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative with fruitful outcomes of practical cooperation in a number of areas.

In 2016, China overtook India to become Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner and source of import. In 2017, China became the largest investor in Sri Lanka. Construction has started for a number of Chinese-assisted infrastructure projects, such as the Colombo Port City, Hambantota Port and industrial park. Negotiations on a free trade agreement are making sustained progress. The Bank of China has established its branch in Colombo Financial City.

At the same time, the two countries are making good progress in people-to-people exchanges through tourism and education as well as among youth, think tanks and media outlets. For example, NISCSS, where I work, has awarded adjunct professorship to Admiral Jayanath Colombage of the Pathfinder Foundation. The NISCSS and Pathfinder Foundation also released a joint report which is the first international cooperation project China has conducted on the Indo-Pacific strategy. I have brought the report with me today and you can find it at the reception desk.

China stands ready to work together with countries along the Belt and Road route, including Sri Lanka, to share dividends from development. In the future, BRI cooperation between China and Sri Lanka needs to be led by specific projects and industrial parks. We also need to build up institutional arrangement to support our cooperation which will be enriched by people-to-people exchanges.

China and Sri Lanka can create effective planning for transport, water conservancy, and hydropower infrastructure projects. We can formulate a short list of priority projects, adhering to the framework of the Kandy-Colombo-Hambantota Corridor. We need to make a joint assessment on project financing and investment risks, explore a standardized and operational project screening process, and make steady headway in project implementation, aligned with the principle to prioritize completing current project before beginning new ones. We should give consideration to the phase-in of large projects or introduction of third-party capital for such projects. And we can invite local media to press conferences and publicize the progress in project implementation or respond to outside concerns in the spirit of public transparency.

China and Sri Lanka need to focus on attracting competitive business from China and other countries to the Colombo Port City and industrial parks. Industrial clusters will deliver a strong boost to economic development in both the northern and southern regions of Sri Lanka. I live in China’s Hainan Island. On April 13, 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in Hainan that the Chinese central government would support the building of a pilot free trade zone and a Chinese-style free trade port in the whole of Hainan Island. At present, construction in the Port of Yangpu, which is the major deepwater port of Hainan, and the development of Yangpu Economic Development Zone is in full swing. We aim to build Yangpu into a regional hub to handle international containers by 2025, making it a place of potential cooperation between Sri Lanka and Hainan on building ports.

China and Sri Lanka can also consider establishing a BRI cooperation council in due time. This cooperation council would make plans on how to align the BRI with Sri Lanka’s national development strategy and oversee the implementation of related projects. The council would also establish working groups on infrastructure, trade and investment, culture, and people-to-people exchanges with representation by Chinese and Sri Lankan government officials and business people to take care of project “landing.” The council can put in place a BRI dispute consultation mechanism involving government officials from China and Sri Lanka at different levels and business representatives from implementing parties to properly address issues in the project implementation process.

China and Sri Lanka can further simplify visa application process, cut or remove visa fees, step up marketing and improve services in order to increase the rate of bilateral tourism. At present, Hainan is building itself into an international tourist destination. We look forward to Sri Lanka and Hainan cooperating on the improvement of tourism resources and services.

Furthermore, both China and Sri Lanka need to play stronger roles within mutual institutions like the Confucius Institute, the BRI scholarship, and Buddhist exchanges. On the part of China, it should reasonably increase the number of scholarships awarded to Sri Lankan students, explore cooperation with Sri Lanka on vocational education, and give more support to mutual visits between Chinese and Sri Lankan Buddhist monks. Recently, China’s Ministry of Education and the Hainan government jointly proposed to build Hainan into an island for international education innovation and build the brand of “study in Hainan.” I wish to take this opportunity to invite Sri Lankan students to come to study in Hainan. As far as I know, some Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka are currently studying in the Nanhai Buddhist Academy in Sanya, Hainan. With this platform, there is hope that the two places will continue expanding opportunities for Buddhist exchanges.

II. The Future of U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy

The United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy will be characterized by two trends in the future. First, the U.S. will try to stop China from pursuing absolute power in the Indo-Pacific—including Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. For example, the U.S. will prevent China from gaining overwhelming advantages on maritime issues, from getting supremacy in regional economic development, and from getting absolute control in the creation of regional security and economic rules. Second, in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. will maintain control over its maritime routes and regional economic agenda. It has already launched the security consultation with Japan, India and Australia (a group known as “the Quad”) to exclude China from building regional economic and security orders. Also, it tries to include India into the fold of the Indo-Pacific strategy to maintain its influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

From China’s perspective, the core of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy aims at building an exclusive regional block against China. This strategy, once implemented, will bring challenges to China in at least in three spheres: strategic conflict, the BRI, and the South China Sea.

First, China will inevitably be confronted with U.S. competition and pressure. The two countries may come into strategic conflict over their national interests. Second, the Indo-Pacific strategy will pose a competitive challenge to the BRI and offset China’s challenge to the U.S. supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. Third, the U.S. will step up its military deployment in the South China Sea under the framework of the Indo-Pacific strategy. This third point in particular includes the U.S. conducting close-up reconnaissance and intelligence collection on China; working together with Japan, Australia, India and Vietnam to build an anti-China camp in the South China Sea; and putting pressure on China when it comes to Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations, construction on the islands and reefs as well as the deployment of military facilities in the South China Sea, all of which will pose a challenge to China’s efforts in managing the South China Sea issue and upholding its maritime interests.

Nevertheless, due to internal and external restraints, the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will only have a limited impact on China. First, the Indo-Pacific strategy is not the top priority of the Trump administration. Therefore, the U.S. will not make a huge effort, particularly on infrastructure and transport projects, to directly compete with China’s BRI. Second, key U.S. officials responsible for the Indo-Pacific strategy are frequently replaced, which hinders its long-term and effective implementation. Third, the U.S. has differences with its allies and partners. The U.S. puts more emphasis on security and competition while Japan, Australia, India and ASEAN pay more attention on economic cooperation. These countries are suspicious about the Trump administration’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific strategy and therefore are not in a rush to push for its full implementation.

As a rising maritime power and a major participant in global maritime governance, China stands ready to work together with all maritime countries, including Sri Lanka, to build an Indian Ocean of win-win cooperation, prosperity and stability.

First, we need to put in place an institutionalized exchange platform for the Indo-Pacific ocean governance. NISCSS and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of Indonesia jointly launched the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (hereinafter referred to as “CSARC”) in 2016. The CSARC has emerged as a new platform for maritime research cooperation between China and Southeast Asian countries. It holds academic events such as annual training programs of the China-ASEAN Academy on Ocean Law and Governance and the South China Sea themed Sub-Forum under the umbrella of the Annual Conference of Boao Forum for Asia. Looking ahead, we would like to expand maritime cooperation with coastal states of the Indian Ocean. We want to explore a cooperation mechanism on the ocean governance of the Indian Ocean by integrating existing resources and based on current platforms. We are ready for substantive cooperation, such as mutual visit of scholars, joint research on ocean governance and release of joint research outcomes, with think tanks from coastal states of the Indian Ocean. At the same time, the CSARC will hold workshops on a regular basis to jointly cultivate specialized talents needed for ocean governance in this region.

Second, we propose to hold regular dialogues on ocean affairs between NISCSS and think tanks from Indian Ocean coastal states. The NISCSS, a top Chinese think tank on maritime issues, has held regular dialogues with counterpart organizations from the U.S., the European Union, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries. Today’s symposium is the first one dedicated to maritime issues between the NISCSS and a think tank from an Indian coast state. After meeting today, we will make careful assessments on the efficacy of this symposium and subsequently improve the agenda setting and meeting program in order to make it an institutionalized platform and a “brand” event on maritime exchanges.

In conclusion, I wish this symposium to be a complete success. Thank you!