The port town of Trincomalee in Eastern Sri Lanka is known for its scenic beauty eminently qualified to be featured in the National Geographic Channel.
But historically,it has been noted for something very different – its strategic value as a naval base.
Trincomalee’s military value had been grasped by world powers from the time of the Portuguese in the 17th Century. The Dutch, British, French, Indians, Americans and the Japanese have eyed it in succession.
As on date, India, US and Japan are making a beeline to Trincomalee and trying to convince the Sri Lankan government to accept their presence “in Sri Lanka’s interest,” citing a potential maritime security threat to it from expansionist China. This stems from the worry that China could threaten the present free and rule-based international maritime commerce in the “Indo-Pacific region.”
In August, Trincomalee saw the USS Anchorage of the US Seventh Fleet with Marines on board drop anchor there to hold “humanitarian” exercises with the Sri Lankan Navy. Coinciding with the first ever visit by a Japanese Defence Minister to Sri Lanka (including Trincomalee), the Japanese sent a destroyer Ikazuchi to berth there.
Asked why this is happening now, Sri Lanka’s leading maritime security expert, Adm. Dr. Jayanatha Colombage, said that with the Chinese exclusively ensconced in Hambantota port with a 70% stake and a 99 year lease on it, and having a container terminal at Colombo port also, the only port of value still available in Sri Lanka is Trincomalee.
Trinco Port’s Advantages
Trincomalee port has many advantages, Adm. Colombage said. It has been universally recognized as one of the “finest harbours in the world”. It was Admiral Nelson who said that for the first time in 1775 when he sailed into it from Madras as a young midshipman on board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Seahorse. “Trincomalee port has a natural depth of 25 metres and does not have to be dredged. This is a huge advantage in comparison with Hambantota and Colombo ports,” Colombage said.
According to independent marine researcher, Howard Martenstyn, Trincomalee harbour with 2000 hectares, is ten times larger than Colombo harbour. During World War II,Trincomalee protected the British Seventh Fleet. This proved invaluable after the British lost their principal Asian naval base at Singapore in 1942.
Ideal for nuclear submarines
Trincomalee has immense significance in this age of nuclear weaponry and nuclear submarine-based missile systems also, points out Romesh Somasundaram, who has written on the strategic value of Trincomalee. “Given the depth of the harbour, nuclear submarines are able to dive low within the inner harbour,” he says. Furthermore, Trincomalee has been functioning as naval base since colonial times.
According to Martenstyn, in the 18th Century, the British believed that from Trincomalee a strong naval force could secure control of India’s Coromandel Coast (the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh coastlines).
The Dutch had built a fort, and in the 20th. Century, the British built an airfield, a naval base, a naval dockyard and also a huge oil storage facility with 101 giant oil tanks to supply both peacetime and wartime needs.
During World War II, the Japanese knew the role that Trincomalee was playing in the defence of British interests in Sri Lanka and the Bay of Bengal and bombarded it in 1942. Over 700 people were killed when carrier based Japanese aircraft struck in April 1942. Sri Lanka tasted its suicide attack when one of the Japanese bombers plunged into an oil tank setting it ablaze. The fire raged for a week melting the tank which had a one inch thick protective steel wall.
Trincomalee is nearest to the countries on the shores of the Bay of Bengal such as India (Southern and Eastern part of it), Bangladesh and Myanmar. Trincomalee commands the entrance to the Bay of Bengal which is now gaining economic and strategic importance with the entry of China as an economic power in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh, points out Adm.Colombage. Trincomalee rather than Hambantota is nearer South East Asian ports ,he adds.
Somasundaram shows how a lot of Sri Lankan history revolved around control over Trincomalee. It was the Portuguese Admiral, Alfonso Albuquerque, who first saw the value of Trincomalee and made it part of his grand design of having bases in far flung areas to control the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean and protect Portugal’s maritime and imperial interests.
The Dutch took over Trincomalee from the Portuguese, beating the French to it though the latter had the sanction of the Kandyan King to possess Trincomalee. Subsequently, the British spent much time and energy seizing it from the Dutch.
In the 18th century, when the King of Kandy wanted to get rid of the oppressive Dutch, he sent word to the British in Madras seeking help, and offering Trincomalee harbour as a bait. Though the British wanted Trincomalee and sent emissary John Pybus to the Kandyan court, they were reluctant to take on the Dutch because they were at peace with the Dutch in Europe at that time. This reticence led to bad relations between the Kandyan King and the British.
But by 1780, Britain itself was at war with Holland and also with the French. This time, every effort was made to seize Trincomalee from the Dutch. When the British did seize Trincomalee, it became Britain’s first territorial possession in Sri Lanka.
Interestingly, Trincomalee was also the last place in the island they gave up. Although the British gave independence to Sri Lanka in 1948, they held on to the RAF base in Katunayake and the Royal Navy base in Trincomalee till 1957. The nationalist government of SWRD Bandaranaike had asked
them to leave.
By 1954, India was beginning to show an interest in Ceylon, albeit very tentatively. Somasundaram quotes an early Indian strategic thinker, R. R. Ramachandra Rao, as saying as early as in 1954, that India has “very real interest in ensuring that no hostile power should establish itself in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)”.
More pointedly, Ramachandra Rao said: “ Foreign airstrips and naval control of Trincomalee would unbearably expose the Indian peninsula to air and sea bombardment and assault along her extensive coasts. Ceylon is within Indian defence area, at the very heart centre of the Indian Ocean defence.”
In the 1980s, India feared encirclement by hostile forces. It had contradictions with China and the US, besides Pakistan. India feared that the pro-Western J.R. Jayewardene (JR) regime would soon make Sri Lanka a part of the anti-Indian Western alliance. India’s support for the minority Tamils in the island had alienated “JR” from India.
To add to India’s fears, in 1985, JR reminded British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the Defence pact the British had signed with Sri Lanka in 1947 was still there, not having been abrogated formally.
These were among other reasons why India appended to the India-Sri Lanka accord of July 1987, an Exchange of Letters between President JR Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi which mentioned Trincomalee.
Through the letters, the two leaders agreed that:(1) Trincomalee or any other port of Sri Lanka, would not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests. (2) the work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee oil tank farm would be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka.
However, the tanks were handed over to India only in 2003 in exchange for supporting the Norwegian-brokered peace process in Sri Lanka to end the war with the separatist Tamil militants.
India has now been offered to chance to join Japan in developing the Trincomalee harbour and partner Singapore and Japan in developing the hinterland as an Economic Zone.