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The convoluted LNG–NG story: What do we need? LNG or NG or neither?

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By Eng. Parakrama Jayasinghe

parajaysinghe@gmail.com

I am not a fan of natural gas either in its gaseous state NG or the liquefied state LNG, both of which are very much under discussion now locally and at COP 26 in Glasgow. At the same time, I would like to consider myself a realist with the wellbeing and needs of Sri Lanka receiving the highest priority.

Natural gas, mostly Methane (CH4), is present in deep underground strata in large pockets or closer to the surface in a more dispersed manner, emanating from decaying biomass and also unfortunately emitted by ruminating bovine.

Those who enjoyed this natural but diminishing fossil fuel resource in their own territorial land mass or with access to neighbours in the same land mass could do so in it’s gaseous state, commence exploiting by laying extensive gas pipe lines sometimes running thousands of kilometres

But in recent decades , with larger volumes being discovered (with the USA and Canada exploiting environmentally disastrous tar sands and fracking practices), the lure of this seemingly economical and decidedly less polluting fossil fuel, has attracted even those countries not endowed with any indigenous gas resources on their own or neighbours with such resources accessible by pipelines. This has led to the development of the process of liquefaction of the NG by cooling down to about – 160 degrees under high pressure, purely for the purpose of economically acceptable logistics for transport mainly by sea, creating the LNG concept and market.

However, since NG can be used only in its gaseous form, at the recipient’s end re-gasification facilities are required and were implemented on land close to the point of use or in logistical distribution terminals. The oil and gas industry using their ingenuity came up with a further twist by development of the Floating Storage and Re Gasification Units (FSRU), designed to serve those who could not deploy the land based re-gasification facilities located on land as these could be quite expensive. As the name suggests, these are designed as floating vessels moored close to the point of use, and the LNG is delivered to the FSRUs by bulk NG carriers. The re-gasified NG is delivered in relatively short pipelines to the land based consumption units for example power plants.

This is decidedly a simple explanation for the understanding of laymen. There are extensive and detailed explanations given in several articles by Eng. Nalin Gunasekera, a renowned international expert on the subject, in the Daily News of 3, 4 and 5 November and the Sunday Island of 7 November 2021, for those interested in gaining a more in depth understanding of the issues associated with these systems.

However, my purpose in writing this comment is not to discuss such technical intricacies but to examine how Sri Lanka should evaluate the options and the best approach for our benefit if we are to consider either LNG or NG. As already mentioned, given the choice, I would not like having to use NG in any form. It is a fossil fuel and it is now recognised as a very significant contributor to Global Warming, being 80 times more potent than CO2 in the short term. But it has the advantage of being a cleaner burning fuel, devoid of a plethora of dangerous and toxic pollutants released to the entire exosphere.

What are Sri Lanka’s Options ?

Some important issues must be recognised prior to seeking a reply to this query. Viz:

We have now firmly established the target of 70% renewable energy contribution for power generation by 2030

The current forecasts the 30% contribution by fossil fuels in 2030 is 8997 GWh Vs the current contribution of 9000 GWh ( CEB 2020 statistics), which leaves no room for any additional fossil power plants, except as replacements for any due to be retired shortly. The 350 MW Sobhadhanawi plant can be justified only in this context.

The 900 MW Lak Vijaya coal power plant may have a residual economic life of about 25 years.

The price of coal has sky rocketed, reportedly to over $ 240 per ton at source and no suppliers even at that price to Sri Lanka

The price of crude oil too has shot up to $ 85 per BBL and seems to hold at that level.

As such, using NG to meet the 30% gap appears to be an option and environmentally less damaging at least at point of use, provided the cost of generation is acceptable.

The comparison between the CEB tender for the FSRU only, without considering the LNG supply cost and mechanism, with the NFE proposal, which includes a monopoly on supply of LNG at unknown prices, is most illogical and has no meaning, at all. Talk about comparing one rotten apple with an even more rotten orange.

In spite of the grave doubts cast by Eng. Nalin Gunesekera, there is a possibility of attracting investors to develop the Mannar gas resource due to reasons given later on

Where does that leave us? Have we no options at all?

To start with, there can be no justification to continue with this love affair with LNG, given that it will compel Sri Lanka to continue purchase of a fossil fuels with scarce Dollars and at prices on which we have absolutely no control. The attraction of $ 250 Million for the sale of a valuable national asset is no justification, however tight the present foreign exchange situation is, a hollow relief as it will result in draining out several billions of dollars in a few short years.

Next, an FSRU is an inevitable appendage to go with the LNG supplies. Eng. Gunasekera has gone to great lengths to explain the complexities of this system and the high degree of expenditure required for its implementation and operation as well as the great many risks involved in the whole deal. He comes from an expert with decades of experience in this sector, and we will indeed be fool hardy to ignore his warnings and fall into a trap, from which we have no escape.

The whole process of this attempt to get NG as an alternative source of fuel, without anyone competent, establishing the possible means of supply, and compounding the problem by awarding a contract for the construction of a power plant is laughable, if not for the tragic mess that has landed Sri Lanka in. This is even more tragic considering that there has been no in depth re-evaluation on financial and economic feasibility based on current supply and price issues, done before deciding to make an award for a project tendered for in 2016. Sri Lanka having painted itself into a corner, the solution is not to get blackmailed but to dump the LNG and FSRU options even at this late stage. It has been calculated by the SLSEA that even with the most optimistic assumptions on current prices of LNG the cost of generation with LNG will be of the order of Rs 35.00 per kWh. This can only go up with continued depreciation of the rupee and the price trends of the LNG.

Just for comparison, the Siyambaladuwa solar project is expected to generate electricity at Rs 11.00 per kWh and the Mannar Wind Plant is generating at less than Rs 10.00 per kWh. The current cost of adding batteries to make these firm sources of electricity generation is only Rs 8.50 per kWh and is expected to decline sharply in the coming years to Rs. 3.50 per kWh by 2025.

What about Yugadhanawi Power Plant and the supposed share sale of 40% shares to the New Fortress Energy ( NFE)? If this deal is already confirmed and the $ 250 Million is already received, then this share deal on its own would be carried out. But there cannot be any additional conditions such as a monopoly of supply of LNG, attached to this sale. Such conditions are totally illegal and we can only hope that the present litigation will support this point of view.

At present, the Yugadhanawi plant operates at about 30% plant factor. Let it continue to do so using the furnace oil, even though the cost of FO also may have gone up in recent times. The impact on the national economy and the CEB cash flow would be much less worrisome than the proposed misadventure with LNG.

What is the fate of Mannar Oil and Gas Resource?

Although Eng. Gunasekera is of the view that its proven potential is far too little to attract any investors, he has hedged his bets by a surprising comment on the possibility of this resource being supplementary to FSRU and LNG. Given the dire warnings he has sounded against any attempt to implement the FSRU, perhaps he may have an inkling that the Mannar resource may stand on its own.

However, I would like to take a more optimistic view of the possibility and the need for a successful development agreement (taking due notice of warnings given on this count too due to Sri Lanka’s poor record of international negotiations) for two reasons:

It is now becoming impossible to operate the Lak Vijaya coal power plant due to cost of coal.

We don’t seem to have the courage to look beyond the 70% RE target and therefore should look for a least damaging solution, both economically and environmentally.

Both these objectives are served by successful development of the Mannar gas field with the potential of gaining both more economically and financially as the estimated potential of 9 Trillion Cubic Feet of Gas from the currently explored blocks; this is many times our own potential consumption and will yield a substantial surplus.

The World Scene on Natural Gas

I must justify my claim to be a realist in hoping for an acceptable agreement for this development in spite of my opposition to any form of fossil fuels. The fact remains that it is only now that the CEB has accepted the 70% RE goal. So, we need to look for the least damaging means of meeting the balance 30%. In the world scene, in spite of the agreement that NG is a very potent GHG due to leakages at points of extraction, storage and transport, it remains a highly sought after fuel. While there is a widespread agreement to eventually end the use of coal, in some countries even as early as 2025, there is no such agreement in respect of NG.

Even at the current COP 26 summit dubbed as the Green Washing Festival by Greta Thunberg, the commitment is only to reduce the methane emissions by 30% by year 2030, that too with out several major producers and users of NG including India, Russia and China

So, the demand and use of NG shall remain high and even escalate as replacement of coal in the foreseeable future. The largest increase is also expected to be in the Asian region. Coupled with this is the fact that there is a great gap between the quoted prices in different NG markets such as Henri Hub and the Japan Korea Market as shown in the graphs.

As such, developing our own resource is attractive and very much in centre stage of the high demand area.

So, while Sri Lanka has committed to reach Zero Carbon status by 2050, there is no reason why we should not aim at the least environmentally damaging and potential economically attractive option of opening up this resource as the transition solution.

The Worst Case Scenario?

What if we are not successful in getting an acceptable agreement and have to do without any gas?

This may be a reality considering the discussions going on at COP 26 against funding for any new fossil fuels. Many including me would view this as the best option in the long run.

Sri Lanka has enough and more indigenous RE resources and the 100% RE option is not impossible. The issue would be more of a financial problem than technical with the need for capital to import the necessary capital goods. There is hope generated at COP 26 on this count too. The project is already at the planning or implementation stage and such as the 100 MW solar and Wind Projects up to some 177 MW of major hydro projects would help bridge this gap in addition to the projected wind, biomass and solar potential .

The tantalising potential of doubling the generation capacity of the Victoria project on which feasibility studies have already been done needs urgent consideration.

Conclusion

The bottom line is clear. There are more than enough reasons for dumping the FSRU option before any more ill-considered commitments are made.

The possibility of attracting credible investors to develop the Mannar resource is reported to be very real and imminent. Therefore, a short sighted commitment to implement FSRUs and therefore the import of LNG would be most foolhardy.

There is the need for much more proactive measures to harness our own RE resources, not limiting such actions to mere rhetoric. The only ingredient lacking is the confidence as well as foresight of the energy authorities, blind to the world trends, both technically and commercially.

A time-targeted action plan towards the 70% RE is urgently needed with much greater emphasis on the next few years’ goals and activities. These would be invaluable in making adjustments to the plans for the next stage, say up to 2027. It is most likely that much more challenging targets could be set with the technical advances and the learning during the first stage.

Can we adopt this “Can Do” attitude at least now?



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Impressive Indian scene…

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Some of the live streaming events, on social media, have brought into the limelight quite a few impressive performers, hailing from India.

Just recently, I checked out the live performance of Stephanie Sutari, and her sister Desiree, and found the duo very entertaining, and so the spotlight this week is focused on the singing sisters.

Stephanie says it’s her very supportive parents who encouraged her to go for piano/music classes, at a young age of eight, as a hobby. Later, she joined the church choir and participated at various singing competitions.

Before long, Stephanie was lending her voice for voiceovers and jingles for advertisements.

Ssys Stephanie: “I only considered it as a career option, in my late teens. So I completed my post-graduation, in Media, but decided to follow my heart and take up singing, full time.”

However, coming from a non-musical background, it was a challenge for Stephanie to make her way into the industry, but, she says, she was determined and extremely driven.

“They say, the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart, so, initially, I stayed in my comfort zone and started singing, professionally, in English only…but living in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood, I decided to utilise my resources and get out of my comfort zone; you may call it fate (I believe it’s my grandparents blessings), I was offered a break with one of the best entertainment bands in India – Rodney and the Band, at the age of 22. Yes, I became a full time Bollywood singer and started touring with them, all over the world.”

Talented Stephanie branched out, from singing only English songs, to enhance her repertoire by including songs in over 10 languages – Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi (Indian languages), Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a few African languages, like Zulu, Duala.

She has performed for over 1000 shows, all over the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Lagos, and Indonesia.

“I love to travel and if I’m not travelling on work (which is extremely rare), I travel on vacation….My most favourite travel destination is Europe, with Switzerland and Paris being right on top.”

Stephanie goes on to say that the best part of her family gatherings was the sing-along sessions and she then realised how music had the power to uplift people’s mood.

“So, when the pandemic hit, I started an official Stephanie S page, on Facebook, to help people go through the tough times, with a little hope, and went I live, once a week, to bring people, and their love for music, together. The response was overwhelming ‘cos I reached out to so many people, from all over the world, from the comfort of my home. The interesting fact is, I got my best friend Mathew Varghese, on board, who controls the entire audio and video technicalities, sitting in another country, Kuwait, online.

“My little sister, Desiree, who has a magical voice, and moves that drove my viewers crazy, soon became an integral part of my live performances, as well, and today she’s more in demand for her charisma and melodious singing. She has just started her musical journey but has a promising future in music ahead of her.”

Referring to her future plans, Stephanie said it’s to make a mark in the global music industry, by showcasing her talent.

And, her message to the next generation: “It’s important to follow your dreams, but it’s also important to complete your education first. Knowledge is Power,”

Winding up our chit-chat, Stephanie said she has never been to Sri Lanka but is eagerly looking forward to spending a vacation in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as soon as time permits.

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Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community

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On July 3, 1971, during the first JVP insurgency, while I was working with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF), based at China Bay, in Trincomalee, I reported to the squadron early morning and was told by our Officer Commanding the No. 3 Maritime Squadron, Flt Lt Denzil Fernando, that I was assigned to fly as ‘Second Dickie’ to Sergeant-Pilot Tony (Tuan Mohamed Zachariah) Dole in a de Havilland Dove with serial (registration) CS 406. We were to go to Vavuniya to pick up the then Government Agent (GA), Neville Jayaweera, and take him to Ratmalana (RMA).

Our trip to Vavuniya was uneventful, except that the runway, unused for many years, had been cleared and secured by the Army, with soldiers standing at regular intervals along the full length of the runway. After the GA boarded the plane we got airborne and set course for Ratmalana. It was a bit cloudy when we started. Soon the clouds got heavier, and we had to fly through the clouds to maintain our course. Not long afterwards, the weather became worse, and turbulence in the clouds caused our eight-seater D.H. 104 Dove to shake like a leaf in the wind.

The twin-engine transport plane didn’t have Airborne Weather Radar (AWR) to avoid rain clouds. AWR works on the principle that the more turbulent a cloud, the greater the mass of water it will support. This will ‘bounce’ off radar signals emitted by the aircraft, and will be proportional to the cloud thickness, thereby providing an image of the turbulence, within the cloud mass, as indicated on a screen in the cockpit of the aircraft.

Without AWR, our only option was to reduce speed to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the GA (and us), not unlike when driving on a bumpy road, and then ‘eyeballing’ the weather and hoping for the best by avoiding the more intense rain clouds. The only weather forecast reports available to us were for China Bay and Ratmalana airports, but no information whatsoever on observed weather en route.

By now, flying in cloud, we had lost sight of the ground and were unsure of our position. We were avoiding clouds to the best of our ability. The vertical development of some of the clouds were in excess of 10,000 ft at some places. So we decided to go below the cloud base, which was fortunately higher than existing terrain, so we could maintain sight of ground or water to pinpoint our position. In aviation parlance, this is known as a ‘visual fix’ of position.

We also flew further west towards the coast to reduce the chances of rising terrain (hills). Soon we spotted, through the rain, the unmistakable coastline, of Kalpitiya and Puttalam, enabling us to positively establish our position. We then continued to follow the coastline at low leve,l to RMA, flying under the jet aircraft approach path at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, and towards Colombo.

The air traffic control towers at Katunayake and Ratmalana were also reporting heavy rain showers. We found a patch clear of cloud, south of the Ratmalana airport, over Bolgoda Lake, and began circling there. But Sgt. Dole had an ace up his sleeve. He told me that showers present under cloud cells usually come in waves that transit the airport, and the best bet was to wait and land between the showers that we could see well from our vantage point in the south.

Sure enough, as soon as one rain shower passed the airport, we were well positioned to turn in and land in relatively clear weather with only a slight drizzle, before the next downpour hit.

This was exactly 50 years ago. We didn’t have radio navigational aid, except the Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) at China Bay, BIA and Ratmalana that operated on low to medium frequency and were affected by bad weather (thunderstorms) and thus rendered useless in our circumstances described here. In fact, the signals emitted by Radio Ceylon were sometimes stronger! In addition, there were two Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Radio Range stations (VORs) at BIA and RMA, but our aircraft was not equipped with a receiver that could be used in conjunction with the VORs. They were meant for the ‘big aircraft’. Other countries had Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) associated with the VOR, but not Ceylon.

Therefore, pilots had to navigate by a process called ‘Dead Reckoning’, which involved estimated ground speed and time over known ground features (cities, rivers, roads, railway lines and buildings for example). ‘If you reckoned wrong you were dead!’ To add insult to injury, we didn’t have ‘real-time’ observed meteorological information available to us in terms of cloud base and intensity of rain to help us make informed decisions as to what route to follow.

Today, technology has improved worldwide in leaps and bounds. We have ‘smart’ cellular phones and tablets with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We have capabilities of providing better facilities to domestic air traffic, consisting of landplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. For many years we have had a radar station positioned on Pidurutalagala, the highest point in the island. In fact, we can even monitor certain areas of South India.

Unfortunately, real-time meteorological information is still not available as Sri Lanka has not invested in a communications system capable of providing such information. More than 15 years ago, Singapore installed a radar system at Changi Airport that was capable of giving information to pilots on the intensity of rainfall relative to their airports. We are told that Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department invested Rs.200 million, in 2013, on a Doppler radar system which, in their so-called ‘wisdom’, they wanted to site at Deniyaya. But it was never installed, and the equipment is now in storage in damaged condition after it went ‘down the pallang’ while being transported there!

Today, there are many free websites which provide highly accurate satellite-based weather forecast information at a click of a button. It is also available on ground to flight dispatchers. It is therefore sad to note that the weather forecasts, produced by our Meteorological Department (who should be playing a key role) are not used by the aviation community, almost certainly due to a lack of confidence on the part of pilots and aviation operations officers. It should also be noted that in Sri Lankan domestic aviation, along with the satellite weather forecasts, the actual observed weather, must go hand in hand. Even this is still not provided by the Met’ Department. I believe that this is a major lapse.

The following incident illustrates the stark reality of what the current situation is for domestic operators. A few days ago, a commercially important passenger (CIP) was flown to Anuradhapura by a domestic air charter company to attend celebrations commemorating the two-year anniversary in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The outbound flight to Anuradhapura was uneventful. For the return flight to RMA, the flight dispatcher based at Ratmalana had to plan the flight. While the general weather forecast was rain, standard practice relied on the observed actual en route weather by police stations on the way: at Galgamuwa, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Divulapitiya, Palavi, Chilaw, Wenappuwa and Negombo.

All these observers are local police personnel, not qualified aviation or meteorological professionals. Consequently, their very subjective ‘met reports’ are along the lines of “the sky is dark”, “it is about to rain”, “it is now drizzling” or “heavy showers”, from which the flight dispatcher has to form a mental picture of what the en route weather is. One wonders what the insurance implications would be if an accident occurs.

To continue, the hapless pilot at Anuradhapura, who was in touch with his dispatcher on his cellular phone before departure, had to evaluate the risks and make an informed decision. Like Sgt. Dole and I did 50 years ago, he had to get airborne and ‘play it by ear’, so to speak. So, having reached the western coastline, he followed it all the way to Ratmalana. As a matter of interest, I was able to follow the progress of this single-engine light aircraft through one of the free apps on my smartphone, via satellite. That is what prompted this article.

I regard it as an absolute shame that in the last 50 years the Colombo Met’ Department has been unable to provide useful ‘real-time’ meteorological observations to domestic air operations. Yet to satisfy the international aviation community in the gathering of weather data, they have observation stations at all of Sri Lanka’s international airports. But it is a case of thus far and no further. Scrutinising the Meteorological Department’s website will reveal that they have weather observation stations in Kankesanturai (KKS), Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Mahailluppallama, Puttalam, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Pottuvil, Ratnapura, Katunayake, Ratmalana, Galle and Hambantota. These stations are connected to the World Weather Watch (WWW) through a Global Telecommunication Network (GTS). I do not know whether they are automatic as in other parts of the world, or require a qualified human observer.

The sad part is that this real-time information is not available to domestic aviation operators (of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) who have to rely on amateurish police station observations and information. If the observed real-time weather is brought online with a good communications network comprising more observation stations established at all the other domestic airports, weather updates will enhance and synergize air safety in real-time.

I do not know who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs, but certainly the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL), the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), and the ‘keepers’ of some of the domestic airports should coordinate with the Met’ Office and have real-time weather reports available for all domestic flights.

More recently it has been reported, in the local media that the Colombo Met’ Office and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have signed an agreement for two more weather radar stations, to be sited at Puttalam and Pottuvil, to replace the one that never ‘got off the ground’ at Deniyaya. Will JICA be able to help in establishing automatic observation stations accessible to domestic aviators, to determine and report on such vital meteorological data as cloud base, intensity of rain, wind direction and speed, and temperature, as a fundamental component of good communication?

It is sad that the ‘end users’ are never consulted in important matters such as these.

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The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality

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A ‘Summit for Democracy’ conceptualized and organized by the US is expected to be conducted on December 9th and 10th in virtual mode and some major world powers, such as China and Russia, have not been invited to it. Such developments ought not to prompt any sections that matter in this connection to look askance at the US over its choice of invitees in consideration of the fact that politics are very much at the heart of such decision-making. It could not be otherwise, since politics are the ‘stuff and substance’ of international relations.

It should not come as a surprise too if the aim of the US in calling this forum is to project its power and influence globally. This should be expected of a super power. The forum could have the effect of accentuating international political cleavages and this too must be expected. Realpolitik is what we are up against in this summit to a considerable degree and it could not be otherwise.

However, the hope of progressives the world over is likely to be that the essentials of democracy would come to be discussed and stressed, despite these serious constraints posed by politics. It is also hoped that the quality of democracy would receive adequate scrutiny and ways worked out as to how accountable governance could be advanced. In the absence of these inputs the summit would come to nought.

Democratic opinion the world over considers democracy to be chief among the US’ soft power assets. If the US political leadership thinks so too, the opportunity has come its way through the summit in question to prove to the world that this is really so. For example, the US cannot shy away from the need to make its territory safe and welcoming for all its ethnic communities, particularly minority groups.

The US should ideally be guided by the principle that every form of life within its boundaries ‘matters’. Such questions are at the heart of democratic advancement. The resolution of issues of this kind by any purported democracy has a close bearing on the quality of democracy manifested in it.

Reverence for life is at the centre of democracy. In this connection it is discouraging to note that students and teachers are continuing to be gunned-down in some US High Schools. In one such recent incident, two students and a teacher had been reportedly killed in a High School in Michigan, while scores of others had been injured. As a self-professed advanced democracy, the US is obliged to re-examine its Gun Laws and explore the possibility of doing away with them, so as to protecting life and nurturing a pro-peace culture within its borders. However, the US’ obligations by way of advancing the quality of its democracy do not end here. Much more needs to be done in a range of issue areas, but Gun Laws ought to be prime among its concerns.

India and Pakistan are two key states in South Asia that have been invited to the summit and this ought to be a high moment for them. Since South Asia’s advancement in a number of areas depends crucially on these regional heavyweights the hope of progressives is likely to be that the people of South Asia would gain eventually through the engagement of India and Pakistan in these deliberations on democracy.

The fact that Sri Lanka has been left out of the summit ought to be worrying for it. Fire-breathing nationalist opinion in Sri Lanka is likely to be of the view that this counts for nothing and that the US is in no position to sit in judgement over other countries on issues relating to democratic development. These nationalists are also likely to vociferate that Sri Lanka could depend on its ‘all-weather friends’ in Asia for support in a number of areas and that Western support is not of much consequence for its sustenance.

But such positions fly in the face of hard political and economic realities. To begin with, no major power in Asia would come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the cost of its own political and economic links with the West. These powers’ economic wellbeing is integral to their having cordial ties with the US, for instance. China cannot afford to neglect its trade and investment ties with the US and vice versa. China would not risk too much for Sri Lanka’s sake.

Besides, there is the case of Uganda to consider. It has scarred itself badly by mortgaging some of its real estate to outside powers. Today, the latter are reportedly staking a claim to what they seem to have lost by forcibly occupying the territories concerned in Uganda. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, have no choice but to relate cordially with all the major powers.

Of the subjects that are expected to come up for discussion at the summit, ‘Advancing respect for human rights’, ought to be of prime importance. This is at the heart of democratic development and it ought to be clear that countries that do not respect fundamental human rights could not be part of any discussion on democracy. Accordingly, authoritarian states cannot sit at conference tables of this kind. It ought to be equally plain that ‘one man rule’ or one-party rule could not figure in these talks since such dispensations are antithetical to basic human rights.

Currently, even in the West, the suitability of the US to head the summit in focus is being vigorously questioned and there are acceptable grounds for this. While it could be argued that the US is a flawed democracy, it needs to be remembered that the foremost democracies are growing, evolving and dynamic systems and are not static and stagnant in nature in those cultural environments that favour their adoption. Accordingly, democracy cannot be rigorously defined. Essentially, it could be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, political systems that do not nurture individual rights cannot pass muster as democracies.

Thus, the summit offers opportunities for a fruitful discussion on what must be done to keep democracy ticking. Ideally, major democracies in Asia too need to conduct such parleys on ways of benchmarking democratic advancement. India, for one, could take on this responsibility, being one of the most advanced democracies in our region.

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