COLOMBO - Sri Lanka said Monday that power plays in the Indian Ocean by competing countries could threaten the free movement along the crucial maritime trading route.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe - speaking at a maritime security conference attended by representatives of 35 countries including the United States, China and India - said that there needs to be a multilateral agreement and new security arrangements to ensure free and safe passage through the Indian Ocean.

“The Indian Ocean is in need of a mutually benefiting security architecture established on a multilateral basis,” the prime minister said at the two-day conference hosted by Sri Lanka’s defence authorities.

“There is also space for an effective multilateral governing structure.”

Wickremesinghe said that Sri Lanka would be willing to take the lead in establishing such an agreement, which would see the island nation act as broker between key players China, India and the US.

The prime minister made direct reference to China’s interest in building ports in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in south Asia, which has “raised concerns of a possible Chinese long-term plan to extend its sea power to the Indian Ocean”.

“Likewise, it is believed that there are concerns raised by the Chinese about a US-Indian strategic vision for Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region,” the premier said.

China’s inroads in southern Asia have irked both India and the US, who question its widening sphere of influence, as the Asia giant also exerts its control over much of the resource-rich South China Sea raising tensions with its neighbours and questions over the free movement of ships in that waterway.

Under Sri Lanka’s previous government China became the strategically located island’s biggest foreign financier and enjoyed significant political and even military influence.

But after president Maithripala Sirisena swept to power in January, the island has sought to reestablish stronger ties with rival India and suspended a Chinese-funded $1.4 billion “port city” project in Colombo.

The premier also made reference to addressing smuggling, piracy and terrorism in the Indian Ocean.