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    Sri Lanka Aims for RCEP Membership and Free Trade Agreements with ASEAN: 

    August 10, 2023

    • Emphasizes Closer Cooperation with ASEAN to Propel Sri Lanka's Economic and Political Strategy

    - President Wickremesinghe
    President Ranil Wickremesinghe revealed that Sri Lanka's intention to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is poised to materialize following the conclusion of credit optimization initiatives. Additionally, the President announced plans to initiate negotiations for the establishment of free trade agreements with corresponding ASEAN member countries.
    President Wickremesinghe's statement underscores the country's determination to bolster its economic connectivity within the broader Asian region. The President affirmed his alignment with the future vision of ASEAN for the Indo-Pacific area, pledging full support for the advancement of this strategic perspective.
    These proposed collaborations highlight Sri Lanka's commitment to fostering economic cooperation and trade linkages, which are poised to open new avenues for growth and development. The President's statements reaffirm the nation's readiness to engage actively in regional economic partnerships to realize its economic ambitions.
    President Ranil Wickremesinghe made these remarks while addressing the 56th anniversary of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Tuesday (08) at the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, Colombo. 
    The President reflected on Sri Lanka's economic history and the decisions that had impacted the nation's progress. He acknowledged the efforts of former President J. R. Jayawardena, his father and other influential figures who advocated for opening up the economy and joining ASEAN during its founding years as well as the Shenoy reforms for liberalization of the economy and to ensure the welfare program stayed within the needs. The President remarked that turning down the opportunity to join ASEAN led to a period of socialist economic policies and limited capital formations, hindering the country's growth potential.
    The President further explained the circumstance that converted a source of profound regret. He said subsequently, over a span of three years, Sri Lanka transitioned into a socialist economic model, leading to the fragmentation of the capital formations, and has continued to progress in this trajectory. “However, we find ourselves not entirely emancipated from the constraints imposed by that economic paradigm. At present, despite being positioned as one of the world's major economies, poised to potentially ascend to the ranks of the fifth or fourth largest expanding economies, we now confront the disheartening reality of shaking on the brink of bankruptcy after 55 years of existence.” 
    President Ranil Wickremesinghe praised the association's remarkable growth and success as one of the world's largest economic blocks. The President also expressed regret that Sri Lanka had declined an invitation to join ASEAN in its early years, citing missed opportunities for economic prosperity. However, he highlighted a new policy approach to collaborate closely with ASEAN to enhance Sri Lanka's position in the global arena.
    In light of Sri Lanka's recent financial challenges and the need for rejuvenation, President Wickremesinghe expressed a renewed commitment to pursue closer ties with ASEAN. He acknowledged the strong cultural and historical connections between Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, underscoring the importance of building on these relations to drive economic and political cooperation.
    Amid the looming threat of bankruptcy, Sri Lanka has embraced the challenge head-on, aiming to move forward with inspiration drawn from proactive problem-solving approaches. This involves looking to the accomplishments of the ASEAN and enhancing collaboration with the organization. This strategic approach is firmly rooted in the government's policies. This approach, championed by the current administration, is expected to resonate with other governments as well. The nation's enduring connections with Southeast Asia stand as evidence of its strong regional ties, perhaps only second to its affiliations with India and Maldives. Cultural bonds are exemplified through shared practices like Mahavihara Buddhism in countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, and historical links like that between the Srivijaya Empire and Sri Lanka and Anuradhapura further reinforce these ties.
    Numerous historical interconnections further validate these relationships, including interactions with Malays and historical associations with the Srivijaya Empire. Even shared colonial history, notably during the Dutch Empire's reign in places like Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia), adds another layer of commonality. This collective historical backdrop lays the groundwork for nurturing cultural, economic, and political relations.
    Consequently, as Sri Lanka faces impending financial challenges, it is actively strengthening its bonds with ASEAN nations. These alliances are poised to facilitate the pursuit of shared interests and the fostering of regional cooperation. In the pursuit of progress, Sri Lanka seeks not only to capitalize on its robust ties with Southeast Asia but also to build upon them for a mutually prosperous future.
    One of the key aspects of the new policy is the initiation of free trade agreements with ASEAN countries. President Wickremesinghe revealed that Sri Lanka has already forged a crucial trade agreement with Singapore and is actively negotiating with Thailand. The President also announced that Sri Lanka has applied to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), recognizing the potential of this vast trade block comprising major economies like China, Japan, and Korea. He emphasized that Sri Lanka's economic focus should now turn towards the east, given the rapid development in that region.
    President Wickremesinghe has urged the Minister of Foreign Affairs to facilitate regular ministerial-level meetings with ASEAN countries to address mutual concerns and discuss the way forward. He stressed the importance of upholding the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific and supporting Indonesia's maritime fulcrum concept.
    The President emphasized the need for unity and cooperation, especially in the face of challenges like climate change. Recognizing the urgency of the climate crisis, President Wickremesinghe called for joint efforts between ASEAN countries and Sri Lanka to combat climate change and explore the potential of the blue economy.
    President Ranil Wickremesinghe expressed gratitude for the invitation to the ASEAN anniversary event and reaffirmed Sri Lanka's commitment to fostering closer ties with ASEAN and reiterated that collaboration and friendship among nations would be the driving force for shared progress and prosperity in the region.
    Meanwhile the Indonesian Ambassador, Dewi Gustina Tobing, highlighted the significance of the ASEAN viewing Sri Lanka as a vital partner for regional cooperation. With a collective population exceeding 670 million, roughly 8.8% of the global populace, ASEAN represents the world's third-largest market. 
    The Ambassador emphasized the importance of fostering stronger ties between ASEAN and Sri Lanka. The aim is to promote people-to-people connections and create a closer link between the two regions. 
    Ambassador Tobing reiterated ASEAN's aspiration for a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. The organization seeks to establish an inclusive regional architecture that ensures the safety and security of all member nations.
    The envoy expressed ASEAN's openness to engaging with countries interested in strengthening their presence in the Indo-Pacific. The organization is committed to collaborating with Sri Lanka to ensure the nation benefits from ASEAN's development. Dynamic and multifaceted partnerships are recognized as pivotal in this pursuit.
    Ambassador Tobing emphasized that shared values, principles, and interests form the bedrock of ASEAN's relations with countries worldwide. These include bolstering a rule-based international order to tackle common challenges spanning economic, security, health, environmental, cultural, and climate change aspects.
    In light of the 57th year of ASEAN's existence, the envoy reaffirmed solidarity among member nations to collectively address challenges and create more opportunities for growth. The partnership between ASEAN and Sri Lanka is poised to flourish, evolving positively over the years and decades to come.
    Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Ministers Bandula Gunawardena, Keheliya Rambukwella, Vidura Wickramanayake, Nasir Ahmed, Jeevan Thondaman, Nalin Fernando, State Minister Taraka Balasuriya and other officials including Malaysian High Commissioner Badli Hisham Adam. , Ambassador of Thailand Poj Harnpol, Ambassador of Vietnam Ho Thi Thanh Truc, Ambassador of Myanmar Mr. U Han Thu, Mr. Sagala Ratnayake, Senior Adviser to the President on National Security and Chief of Presidential Staff and many dignitaries including the commanders of the three armed forces attended the event. 

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