Indian Ocean Region hit by COVID-19, U.S. Afghan pullout: Jaishankar

Indian Ocean Region hit by COVID-19, U.S. Afghan pullout: Jaishankar

Sri Lanka, Maldives point to devastating impact on tourism

The pull-out of United States forces from Afghanistan and the Coronavirus pandemic are the two developments that have posed the biggest recent challenges for countries in the Indian Ocean, said External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

He was speaking at a conference in Abu Dhabi where Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also made a strong plea for help on behalf of debt ridden countries in the region most affected by the pandemic.

“The American withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves both the immediate and extended region grappling with serious concerns about terrorism, radicalism, instability, narco-trafficking and governance practices. Given proximity and sociology, we are all affected one way or the other,” said Mr. Jaishankar, addressing the Indian Ocean Conference, organised by the Delhi-based India Foundation, and attended by leaders and delegates ranging from the Gulf region to the Pacific Islands.

“The consequences of China’s growing capabilities are particularly profound because of the extrapolation of its domestic seamlessness to the world outside… Separately, we have also seen a sharpening of tensions on territorial issues across the breadth of Asia. Agreements and understandings of yesteryears now seem to have some question marks,” he added

Mr. Jaishankar also spoke about a shift in the U.S.’s strategic power posture and new-found “caution” in the region along with the rise of China and a number of territorial disputes in Asia as global trends of the most concern. Without mentioning the 20-month old military standoff between the PLA and Indian army after Chinese transgressions at the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, Mr. Jaishankar said there is a need to move towards a “multipolar Asia” in a “plurilateral world”.

Speaking about the rise of extremism and terrorism within the region, Mr. Rajapaksa said the ‘Easter bombings’ by ISIS-inspired terrorists in Sri Lanka in April 2019 had shown that terrorism cannot be contained in any one area and it “spreads from nation to nation with ease” unless curbed. He proposed a regional mechanism in the Indian Ocean countries to share intelligence and cooperate more on fighting terrorism.

In their speeches, both the Vice-President of Maldives Faisal Naseem and Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa made a point of mentioning the impact of COVID on small islands like theirs, as well as the need for more sustainable fishing practices for their economies.

Mr. Rajapaksa said the loss in tourism earnings, expatriate remittances and exports had hit the Sri Lanka economy hard, and it required support from both creditor countries and financial institutions to tide through the current crises.

Comparing the global effort to mitigate the health impact of COVID-19 with the relatively silent global response to appeals for help with the pandemic’s economic impact, Mr. Rajapaksa said it was time for “richer countries and multilateral financial institutions” to step up and ensure debt repayment waivers are given out to more vulnerable states hit “disproportionately”

“Countries that have taken significant debts in order to fund development are now in a difficult position without being able to pay back the debts. Compared to the role played by World Health Organisation, no agency has taken a global role in helping these countries that must increase expenditure to deal with the pandemic, while already burdened by debt obligations,” he said. Sri Lanka’s largest debt is owed through sovereign bonds and its debt to China accounts for about 10% of the total.

Last week, Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa had visited India with a similar request for economic assistance, and India reportedly agreed to a “four-pillar” approach to helping Colombo with lines of credit for fuel, food and medicines, while considering a long pending request for a currency swap arrangement to defray Sri Lanka’s balance of payment problems.

However, India is yet to respond to the plea for a waiver or moratorium on debt repayment for at least three years, as had been requested by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama also raised deep concerns over the economic impact on tourism from the COVID crisis, and criticised the travel bans by countries each time a “new variant is discovered”.

Addressing the conference via a video link, he said the world could not afford to “keep shutting down” every few months, and the disruptions to the global economy are being felt by the poorest and most vulnerable nations.

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