The Indian Ocean Region
Sri Lanka’s Strategic Importance
Special Correspondent for Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka
30 May 2005
the world is showing an extraordinary interest in the
process in Sri Lanka; if the western donor nations have given $3 billion for
post-tsunami reconstruction work in the island; and if India wants to be kept
informed about what is going on constantly, it is because of Sri Lanka’s
This conclusion is inescapable if one reads ‘Strategic Significance of Sri
Lanka’ by Sri Lankan researcher Ramesh Somasundaram of Deakin University.
In this 2005 publication, brought out by Stamford Lake, Somasundaram tells us
that Sri Lanka has had strategic importance in world history since the 17th
century, attracting the Portuguese, Dutch, French, the British, and the Indians,
in succession. Now, we may add a new entity, “the international community”, to
the list of interested parties.
The author gives three reasons for such interest:
(1) Sri Lanka is strategically situated
(2) It is ideally situated to be a major communication center, and
(3) It has Trincomalee, described by the British Admiral Horatio Nelson as “the
finest harbour in the world”.
Sri Lanka occupies a strategic point in the Indian Ocean, whose vast expanse
covering 2,850,000 sq miles, touches the shores of the Indian subcontinent in
the North; Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia in the East; Antartica in the
South; and East Africa in the West.
The Indian Ocean encompasses the Red Sea approach to the Suez Canal, and the
approaches to the oil-rich Gulf, the Cape of Good Hope and the Strait of
Malacca, which is a major sea route between the West and the Far East.
Sri Lanka, with its natural harbour of Trincomalee, is at a strategic point in
the whole region, having global significance in the modern age, Somasundaram
notes. The Trincomalee harbour, he adds, is placed in a strategic point near the
Bay of Bengal and is one of Sri Lanka’s “most valuable assets”.
The entrance to the harbour is four miles wide and five miles across, East to
West. The inner harbour (which lies in the North) covers about 12 sq miles and
is securely enclosed by outcrops of huge rocks and small islets. A remarkable
feature is the great depth of the inner harbour, he says.
During the period of sailing ships, the harbour could ensure the safety of a
whole fleet during the monsoon, from October to March. A fleet, so protected,
was in a position to dominate the Bay of Bengal and the Eastern Sea.
“Thus any power that controlled this harbour had a great advantage from a naval
and strategic perspective,” Somasundaram observes. He goes on to say that the
fact that the British had Trincomalee enabled them to control their Empire in
India, effectively. During World War II, Trincomalee protected the British
Seventh Fleet. It proved invaluable after the British lost the Singapore naval
base to the Japanese in 1942.
Ideal for nuclear submarines
Trincomalee has immense significance in this age of nuclear weaponry and nuclear
submarine-based missile systems also, the author points out.
“Given the depth of the harbour, nuclear submarines are able to dive low within
the inner harbour to effectively avoid radar and sonar detection,” he observes.
Somasundaram shows how diplomatic relations between the indigenous Kandyan
kingdom and the European powers in the 18th and 19th centuries; the
post-war/post-independence diplomatic relations of the Ceylon government; and
the relations between Sri Lanka and India since the 1980s, have all revolved
round who will use Trincolmalee harbour and how it should be used.
Portuguese were first see value of 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.
Albuquerque set up bases in Malacca in the Malay Peninsula, controlling the
access to the South China Sea and the Far East; in Goa in the West coast of
India; Socotra in the Arabian Sea; Colombo, and then Trincomalee, in Sri Lanka.
Subsequently, successive Western powers, the Dutch, the French and the British,
emulated the Portuguese way of dominating the Indian Ocean. The Dutch took over
Trincomalee in the 17th century, 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 getting 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 bait. Though the British wanted Trincomalee and sent an
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,
and this time, every effort was made to seize Trincomalee from the Dutch,
whether the King of Kandy liked it or not.
When the British did seize Trincomalee, it became Britain’s first territorial
possession in Sri Lanka. And interestingly, Trincomalee was also the last place
in the island they gave up. It was much after they gave independence to Sri
The significance of the take over of Trincomalee was realized by the highest in
Britain at that time. In a letter to Lord Cornwallis, the then Governor General
of India, Prime Minister William Pitt said that seizing Trincomalee from the
Dutch as soon as hostilities had begun in Europe, had prevented the French from
taking it and using it as base to attack the British in the Cape of Good Hope.
During the 19th and the earlier part of the 20th century when the British
expanded their possession on the Eastern, Western and Northern sides of the
Indian Ocean, making it a “British Lake”, Trincomalee played a major role as a
base and a coal storing/refueling centre. Its strategic significance only
increased with the opening of the Suez Canal because the canal led to an
increase in shipping between the West and the East.
During World War II, Trincomalee became the home of the British Eastern Fleet
and Prime Minister Winston Churchill strictly ordered that nothing should be
done to weaken the naval base there.
When oil replaced coal as fuel, Trincomalee began to be a major base for storing
oil. During World War II, the British built 101 giant oil tanks there, each tank
being able to hold 15,000 tons of oil.
Ceylon’s Defence Pact with Britain in 1947
When the British Empire was being folded up in stages after World War II and
India had been given independence in 1947, Ceylon’s independence was only a
matter of time. The British were ready to go from Ceylon, but only if they were
able to continue using Trincomalee and other military bases built during the
War, which they considered essential for the defense of their possessions in
South East Asia and the Far East, and also their trade in the region.
With the full consent and approval of the Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, DS
Senanayake, the British entered into a Defence agreement with Ceylon in 1947
which provided for the use of Trincomalee, the airbase at Katunayake, and if
necessary, other establishments too.
“The Defence agreement was an essential prerequisite to independence,” says
Prime Minister Senanayake entered into the agreement primarily to keep India at
bay, though the ostensible reason was that Sri Lanka had no means to defend
itself against anybody.
However, within ten years of the signing of the Defence agreement, the British
had to leave Trincomalee and Katunayake because the Leftist nationalist
government of SWRD Bandaranaike asked them to quit.
But fortunately for Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was then called), the British did
not make a fuss when asked to go. They had realised, by then, that they were no
longer a sea power, worthy enough to maintain bases in far-flung areas. The
failure to seize the Suez Canal through war in 1956 had taught them this lesson,
Somasundaram points out.
Sri Lanka as an ideal communication centre
In the modern era when communication is key, Sri Lanka’s location has been found
to be ideal to locate communication centres. Kandy’s fine climate was not the
only reason why Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces
in the South East Asia, chose it to locate his headquarters. Command was
communication, and Sri Lanka was ideally suited for that function.
In 1951 came an agreement with the US to relay Voice of America (VOA) programmes
over Radio Ceylon (which was then a popular radio station in the vast Indian
subcontinent), in return for getting new and modern broadcasting equipment from
the US. According to Somasundaram, the VOA used the facility in Sri Lanka to
broadcast to all of Asia, including Central Asia, where the Americans were
trying to weaken the hold of the Soviets.
By now, the US had replaced Britain as the dominant power in Asia, and it needed
military and communication bases all over the continent.
By 1954, India was beginning to show an interest in Ceylon, albeit
very tentatively. Somasundaram quotes an early Indian strategic thinker, RR
Ramachandra Rao, as saying in 1954 itself that India had “very real interest in
ensuring that no hostile power should establish itself in Ceylon”.
More pointedly, Ramachandran 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.”
India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987
According to Somasundaram, the
India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 and the
deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) were “ostensibly” meant to
find a solution to the Tamil ethnic/separatist problem within a united Sri
Lanka, but their “real” objective was to secure for India strategic control over
India feared encirclement by hostile forces. It had problems with all its
neighbours, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and China. China was in cahoots with the
Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Nepalese. The US and Pakistan were close allies
particularly because of the Pakistani role in Afghanistan, where the US was
fighting a proxy war against the Soviets. India, on the other hand, had
continued its close ties with the Soviets to the chagrin of the US.
India feared that the JR Jayewardene regime in Sri Lanka, which was lurching
towards the West, would soon be a part of a Western alliance against India,
because of the latter’s support for the cause of the minority Tamils in the
island. The Indian support for Tamil militants after the 1983 riots was
propelling Jayewardene towards the US-led camp.
To add to India’s fears, in 1985, Jayewardene 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.
India was worried about the influx of foreign intelligence personnel into Sri
Lanka (specifically, Israelis fronting for the US); the fate of the Trincomalee
harbour; and the use to which the vast VOA facilities was being put. India felt
that the US was using the communication facilities at the VOA station in the
island to spy on India and communicate with US submarines in the region. And
British mercenaries from the Channel islands-based KMS Ltd were training the Sri
Lankan armed forces.
This was the reason why India appended to the India-Sri Lanka accord of July
exchange of letters between President JR Jayewardene and Prime Minister
Through the letters, the two leaders agreed that:
(1) Trincomalee or any other port of Sri Lanka, will 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 will be
undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka.
(3) Sri Lanka’s agreement with foreign broadcasting organisations will be
reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up are used solely as public
broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes.
However, when India and Sri Lanka did sign the accord and the IPKF was deployed,
neither the US nor the UK raised a little finger. By then, equations had
“Both Britain and the US viewed the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka as one which
was really the concern of India, and that India should therefore play a major
role in obtaining a political solution to this,” Somasundaram observes.
In fact, the US had by then assigned to India, the role of its proxy in the
region. Indicating a new trend in US thinking on relations with India, Henry
Kissinger said in an article he wrote in Newsweek in 1988:
“India will play an
increasing international role. Its goals are analogous to the British east of
Suez in the nineteenth century - a policy essentially shaped by the Viceroy’s
Office in New Delhi. It will seek to be the strongest power in the subcontinent,
and will attempt to prevent the emergence of a major power in the Indian Ocean
and South East Asia."
Whatever the day to day irritations between New Delhi and Washington, India’s
geopolitical interest will impel it over the next decade to assume some of the
security functions now exercised by the US.”
It is in accordance with this role that India has assumed charge of refurbishing
and running the Trincomalee oil tank farm in a joint venture with the Sri Lankan
government. It is no secret that India is in Trincomalee for strategic purposes
and that the Ranil Wickremesinghe government gave the oil tank farm to India
primarily for the defence of Sri Lanka.
India has also seen to it that the Trincomalee harbour is not handed over to any
foreign power. Significantly, it was India which did the clearing and mapping of
the Trincomalee and Colombo harbours after the tsunami.