Japan; A friend in need; a friend indeed

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe leaves for Tokyo next week for a roundtable discussion with Japanese leaders and its business community at a profound sounding seminar titled,  ‘The Future of Asia’.

There is a lot of chatter recently on the subject of peace in the Indo-Pacific region. In Dhaka last week, Bangladesh and India jointly hosted a conference on the Indian Ocean and even in faraway Stockholm, the subject was discussed. Sri Lankan ministers were present at all these talkathons, the underlying theme being to contain Chinese expansionism in an area that contains 60 percent of the world’s population, 40 per cent of the world’s economy, 80 per cent of oil movements and 70 per cent of container traffic.

Sri Lanka is very much in the eye of this gathering storm between the big powers and has to navigate its way through these stormy seas. President Wickremesinghe has maintained that the country will refuse to be drawn into taking sides.

Japan is a trading nation, and relies heavily on imports and exports. It has a special interest in ensuring the sea lanes of the Indo-Pacific region are safe for shipping. A longtime friend of Sri Lanka, unlike many other countries, Japan has never forgotten a good deed. The speech made by then Finance Minister and later President J.R. Jayewardene in San Francisco at the end of World War II to unconditionally support the re-entry of Japan into the international community, has been etched in the institutional memory of generations of Japanese policy-makers.

It would therefore have been all the more hurtful to Japan when, after all the economic support it had given Sri Lanka, a foolish and corrupt exercise by those in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Secretariat scuttled a generous offer to build a Light Rail Transit system (LRT) without the basic courtesy of informing the Japanese Government of its decision. Several other Japanese funded projects, nearly a dozen, were upended as well with local officials going after the gravy train. The consultants of the LRT have yet to be paid for the initial work they did on the abandoned project.

And yet, due to the historical affinity and its sheer benevolence, Japan has taken the position that it cannot allow Sri Lanka to fail and doled out USD 100 million as grant aid since the country’s bankruptcy declaration last year.

Hopefully, mutual trust has now been restored. Following President Wickremesinghe’s visit to Japan last year to attend the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state funeral, where he urged Japan to give leadership to the debt restructuring efforts at that time that were crucial to the IMF bailout, Japan took up the challenge through the Paris Club.

In Hiroshima on Friday (please see our special report on page 1), Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told the G-7 leaders not only of the need for nuclear disarmament, but also of the need to restore the world economic order that tipped over following COVID-19 and in particular, to help the global south – countries like Sri Lanka that took a major hit in the pandemic.

While official Japanese policy to help Sri Lanka is back on course, it is more difficult to win back the trust and confidence of Japanese companies to invest in Sri Lanka. Businessmen are not swayed by sentiment; they look at their balance sheets. President Wickremesinghe will be meeting Japan’s Digital Transformation Minister to seek his support in bringing Sri Lanka upto speed on the IT front, and also the Sri Lanka Support Group led by the Mitsubishi President together with captains of industry from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce. He will need to convince the hard-nosed entrepreneurs that Sri Lanka is back on track and open for business with Corporate Japan.

X-Press Pearl; All at sea

 The issue of compensation for the X-Press Pearl shipping disaster at the very mouth of the Colombo harbour has generated as much heat as did the burning vessel.

And typically, there seems nothing in Sri Lanka today that does not involve allegations of a scandal. From tenders to food imports, Government Ministers and state officials hand-in-glove with businessmen are top suspects. Now, even the once sacrosanct Attorney General’s Department has been dragged into the firing line of sleaze.

The AG’s Department is caught between a rock and hard place. Its Kremlin-like secrecy – very much like the Central Bank, often boomerangs on it. By its own veil of secrecy it is unable to defend itself. Expecting the Justice Minister to defend the Department is a dangerous ploy to adopt as has been the case in the X-Press Pearl accident.

The slanging matches and political charade apart, Sri Lanka is the aggrieved party in the twin shipping disasters of New Diamond and X-Press Pearl, both within the island’s coastal belt. There are clear strictures in the UN Law of the Sea Convention together with robust advisories and guidance available for Sri Lanka from the International Maritime Organisation, of which Sri Lanka is a member. Did the national authorities obtain their assistance at the first port of call on the legal and compensatory avenues available? Nobody knows.

It is a pity that despite successive governments endlessly talking about the country being a maritime hub, and building new ports and terminals, the country has not been able to produce its own expertise in the varied schools of oceanography. How much expertise does the island-nation possess in marine life and ecosystems, ocean circulation, plate tectonics and the geology of the sea floor apart from admiralty and maritime law and laws governing conventions, treaties to be familiar with shipping offences in open water? The Attorney General had to eventually seek legal counsel from abroad. One may also ask why the Sagara Vishwa Vidyalaya (Ocean University) that was begun some years ago, has not been able to produce such expertise.

A committee of over 40 experts sat to deliberate on the X-Press Pearl compensation issue, but questions aplenty remain in the public domain. There’s little purpose in a Parliamentary Select Committee suddenly having postmortems on the twin shipping debacles, unless it can ensure that at least for the future, Sri Lanka is better geared for these eventualities, in every aspect, given its geographic location and its ambitions to be a major maritime hub.



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