Exploit the country’s strategic location | Sunday Observer
Book review

Exploit the country’s strategic location

25 September, 2022

Title: Strategic Significance of Sri Lanka
Author: Ramash Somasundaram
Publisher: Stamford Lake

Geopolitics is the study of the effects of geography on politics and international relations. At the level of international relations, geopolitics is a method of studying foreign policy to understand, explain, and predict international political behaviour through geographical variables. Geopolitics focuses on political power linked to geographical space.

In this context, the author Ramash Somasundaram focuses on the advantageous geographical positions of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean and its Trincomalee harbour and their strategic importance to the world powers. According to him, Sri Lanka has had its politics and foreign relations mainly determined by its strategic position in the Indian Ocean.

In addition, its closeness to India (only 28 kilometres-wide Palk Straits divides the Indian mainland and Sri Lanka) is a factor that ties it to the orbit of Indian defence planning when the naval deployment became a vital ingredient of the military balance. The Indian Ocean sitting astride the busy lanes of communication that transit the ocean is central to the study.

India due to its size, resources and geography is a hegemonic regional power. Today, India occupies a dominant position which was emphasised recently by President Ranil Wickremasinghe when he was addressing a seminar in Colombo. He said, very soon, India will become a superpower. I may not be there at that time, but I want our younger generation to understand that and learn how to deal with it to our advantage.”

Security complex

The author also says in similar vein what the President has said, “The predominance of India (which is both explicit and implicit) in turn influences and shapes the domestic decision making powers of those states in what Buzan (and Rizvi) describe as a “Security complex” of which South Asia is a good example.

Under this concept, there is the extra regional dimension which is the external force, the regional dimension, which is India, and the lowest tier represented by countries such as Sri Lanka.

The concept uses a realistic analysis with its dominant emphasis on power, and security interests. To understand (and appreciate) the broad framework of analysis of the security complex of South Asia, it is vital to examine the security issues at each level. This enables a better understanding of the interaction at each level: Global, regional and individual small states. The security complex forms the broad theoretical framework of the study. It is in this light that the key concepts are sought to be examined in interpreting the varying events of the study.”

Throughout history, Indian rulers (with the exception of the Chola kings in the South) had no proper understanding or appreciation of sea power. K.M. Pannikar and Kenneth McPherson have pointed to the fact that history of the Cholas illustrates the importance of maritime trade. McPherson sums up the naval activity of the Cholas when he states: “Even more spectacularly the Cholas launched an attack on Srivijaya (Java and Sumatra) in retaliation for Malay attempts to restrict passage through the straits of Malacca.”

King Rajendra Chola eliminated all the choke points in the Indian Ocean, especially the Malacca and Java. The domination by the Cholas ended in the 13th century and no other Indian dynasty followed their policy of projecting their power via a conscious oceanic policy. The Indian subcontinent with its resources, size and manpower, is the dominant factor in South Asian security. When there was political stability within India’s borders it was able to project its powers as a hegemonic, regional power.

Strategic harbour

During the British colonial rule, the British government at times paid no attention to Sri Lanka and her strategic harbour in Trincomalee after 1822. This was mainly due to Britain having no major challenge to its naval dominance over the Indian Ocean and its power over India. However, when the possibility of a major conflict arose in the Indian Ocean region or in the East, Sri Lanka and the harbour in Trincomalee were given attention.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, a strategist and a commentator of world naval strategic and diplomatic affairs, believed that national greatness was inextricably associated with the sea and particularly with its commercial use in peace and its control in war. He said, “He who dominates the Indian Ocean dominates the world.” From this one could understand the importance of harbours in the Indian Ocean.

Littoral states as far as Sri Lanka is concerned the Trincomalee harbour is the most valuable asset. It is one of the world’s great natural harbours placed in a strategic point near the Bay of Bengal. This natural harbour is four miles wide and five miles across East to West. The inner harbour covers about 12 square miles and is securely enclosed by outcrops of huge rocks and small islets. Its remarkable feature is the great depth of the inner harbour. The British Admiral Horatio Nelson called it “The finest harbour in the world.”

Singapore is another important harbour in East Asia and its location has been exploited to make the country prosperous by their leaders. Unfortunately, instead of prospering we have got mired in corruption, wrong policies and communalism and the result is what we are in today. For most of this century, Sri Lanka was a stable and predictable country with steady but slow economic growth and somewhat moderate politics.


After the civil unrest, discontent had built and politicians seemed unable to deal with slower growth and narrowing opportunities, especially for younger people. The recent violent protest is a testimony on how politicians have mismanaged the country’s economy and socio-political affairs.

Optimists say a realistic modernising situation can still emerge. It is high time for the politicians to come to their senses, and see the merits of the good neighbourly relations especially with India and build on them again a stable and prosperous nation. Singapore is a good example to emulate to build Sri Lanka as a commercial hub. The President has the vision and capacity and he should take the firsts step towards this goal. The country cannot afford to wait.”

The most important part of the book is the narrative that Sri Lanka is blessed with its geographical location in the Indian Ocean. We should exploit it to its advantage. The author has written what he thinks must be written as if he wants to hold the reader in his arms and tell them something urgent. The message should not be missed. Policymakers and strategic analysts should take a note of it,” said the author.

The writer is a freelance journalist and Indologist based in Hyderabad, India