At Indian Ocean conference in Colombo, Jaishankar raises dangers of unviable debt, projects

India will work to ensure a free, open and inclusive Indian Ocean region, says External Affairs Minister 

October 11, 2023 09:03 pm | Updated 09:03 pm IST - Colombo

India’s Foreign Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar speaks during a media briefing of the 23rd Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) g in Colombo on October 11, 2023.

India’s Foreign Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar speaks during a media briefing of the 23rd Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) g in Colombo on October 11, 2023. | Photo Credit: AFP

India wants to be a “friend to the world”, the voice of the global south, and will work to ensure a free, open and inclusive Indian Ocean region, said External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, speaking at the annual meeting of the 23-member Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) being held in Colombo, where he also raised the “dangers” of unsustainable debt. Mr. Jaishankar, who met with Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, also witnessed the signing of three agreements on bilateral cooperation. The agreements include Indian assistance for housing projects, modernising schools and a new joint project between the Indian National Dairy Development Board, Amul cooperative and the Sri Lankan Cargill Group to increase milk production in Sri Lanka.

The Minister’s visit, three months after Mr. Wickremesinghe’s visit to Delhi, also comes days ahead of the Sri Lankan President’s travel to Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum, where he is expected to discuss the Sri Lankan debt crisis, and Chinese infrastructural projects. 

“We should be clear where the dangers are, be it in hidden agendas, in unviable projects or in unsustainable debt. Exchange of experiences, sharing of best practices, greater awareness and deeper collaboration are part of the solutions,” Mr. Jaishankar told a joint press appearance with the Foreign Ministers of Sri Lanka  M.U.M Ali Sabry and Bangladesh A.K. Abdul Momen, in comments he appeared to direct at China’s loans and projects to countries in the region. 

Talks with IMF

The conference in Colombo comes even as Sri Lanka’s government is continuing negotiations with the IMF for a $2.9 billion bailout to avoid a debt crisis, with the second tranche of $330 million not yet released. Sri Lanka has won support from India including through lines of credit, debt payment moratoriums, and currency swap arrangements worth almost $4 billion, and is hoping to finalise a debt restructuring package with China, one of its bigger creditors. 

After taking charge of the IORA forum on Wednesday, Mr. Sabry said Sri Lanka, which had last chaired the grouping in 2003-4, was a founding member, of the Bandung conference which led to the Non Aligned Movement, and also had introduced a UN resolution to declare the Indian Ocean region and airspace a “Zone of Peace” in 1971. 

Mr. Jaishankar said that the “spirit of 1971” Mr. Sabry had referred to was important, but that the IORA group must  “discourage any hidden agendas to the contrary”, and must follow the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) as the “Constitution of the Seas”. 

Also read: Bankrupt Sri Lanka gets China’s tentative agreement on debt restructure

“At a time of global polarisation, we are taking the position in IORA that we want an ocean free open and inclusive rules-based ocean for the benefit of all the countries of the region. We don’t want anyone to play a proxy war in the Indian ocean specific area,” Mr. Momen told The Hindu here, adding that there is immense global interest in IORA as the Indian Ocean, which sees 86% of global trade, is the “most important ocean”. 

During the meeting, Sri Lanka took over as Chair, while India took over as Vice Chair of the IORA grouping, that was started in 1997 and now includes 23 countries in south Asia, south east Asia and Australia, west Asia and Africa, all of whom are situated around the Indian Ocean. In addition, about 11 major powers are dialogue partners including China, U.S., U.K., Russia, Japan, Turkiye, and the most recent entrant Saudi Arabia. 

“Sri Lanka has a multicultural, multireligious ethos, and we see ourselves in the centre of the Indian Ocean,” former High Commissioner to India and the Executive Director General of the IORA Secretariat in Colombo Sudarshan Seneviratne told The Hindu. “Hosting such a major conference gives a symbolic message, that despite the economic crisis we had, we feel some confidence that we are holding our own and will come through it,” he added, when asked about the significance of holding a major conference now. 

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