The strategic importance of Trincomalee Harbour stands as a core topic in every dialogue related to Sri Lanka in the modern geopolitics and it is not a mere hyperbole to describe Trinco Harbour as the focal point for Anglo-French rivalry in the Indian Ocean in the advent of the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century. In the words of Imperialist British Premier William Pitt, the Younger (1759-1806), Trinco was the most valuable colonial possession on the globe as it secured the British presence in the Indian Ocean. The victory that the British earned by vanquishing the French fleet in the Battle of Trincomalee in 1782 emboldened the formidable British presence in the Indian Ocean, which finally made them the colonial masters of the Sub Continent. From a strategic point of view, the US Naval Strategist, Alfred Tyler Mahan included a brief description on Trinco in his seminal work “The Influence of Sea Power in History 1660-1783” praising its strategic importance.
The utter importance, which has placed Trincomalee as a cause of envy of many nations is mainly attributed to the rich terrain that nature has created around it. The entrance of the Harbour is four miles wide and five miles across, East and West. The extraordinary depth of the inner harbour covers about 12 square miles and is secured by outcrops of huge rocks and small islets. The ideal location blessed by nature has made the Trincomalee Harbour an asset, where a fleet can be silently anchored without accelerating an open sea battle. The havoc faced by French Admiral Suffren at the hands of his British rival Admiral Sir Edward Hughes in the Battle of Trincomalee was rooted in the deceptive nature of the Trinco harbour, which stood in favour of the Brits.
British-Ceylon Defence Pact
In the wake of independence from the British, the London was not keen in drifting its grip over the strategic importance of Trinco harbour.London was not prepared to grant Ceylon Dominion status until its continued use of military facilities on the island was assured while the Ceylonese nationalists welcomed the retained British presence to deter an Indian invasion. To ensure both parties’ interests were met, therefore, the Defence Agreement was framed to serve ‘in the mutual interest’. Once Ceylon was a sovereign state, however, attempts to implement the defence arrangements were far more contentious. The Labour government was determined to retain British bases as well as Colombo’s goodwill.
Role in the Cold War
The question of Trincomalee appeared to be a cardinal point of mutual interest between Britain and Ceylon as both parties were well aware of its relevance in altering the destiny of the island. Ceylon’s first premier D.S Senannayake was not an Oxbridge educated statesman like most of his contemporary Ceylonese politicians, but he was a staunch realist, who suffered from a constant paranoia on India. In his realist mind, Senanayake feared newly independent Ceylon was at stake as he hesitated India would extend its expansion to Ceylon. This fear was buttressed by Indian strategist K.M Parrikar’s expansionist remarks, in which he advocated for the importance of Trincomalee to the defence of India. Senanayake felt Nehru wanted to get his hands on the Trincomalee and Katunayake bases. At the same time, Senanayake recognized Britain’s ‘feverish search for Empire bases’ with the Cold War emerging. As a result, Senanayake promised if independence was granted he would negotiate ‘some permanent form of agreement’ to meet Britain’s ‘legitimate defence requirements’. It is in this light the British-Ceylon Defence Pact came into force, which ensured the British protection for the defense of Ceylon. Nonetheless, from the very outset the defense agreement turned to be vague, which finally transformed the pact into an ill-fated one. Senanyake’s threat perception was overrated and his plea from Britain to secure island’s protection was dismissed by London. On the contrary, the British wanted Ceylon to purchase the lands of Trincomalee on which the bases stood. The continuity of the Anglo-Ceylonese Defense Pact reached its nemesis in 1956, when SWRD Bandaranaike took over both Trincomalee and Katunayake bases from the British.
The strategic importance of Trincomalee played a pivotal role during the Cold War in the eyes of both the USA and the Soviets. A declassified document released recently by the Central Intelligence Agency denotes Moscow’s concern in strengthening its relations with Colombo in the aftermath of the visit of the US Admiral McCain to Trincomalee harbor during Dudley Senanayake’s government in 1968. A high-ranking US Admiral’s visit to Trincomalee seemed to have made a stir in Moscow as the Soviets feared such a visit would enable Washington to pressure the Colombo government to allow the US Marines to utilize the Trinco Harbour and as a strategic move Soviets sent the Commander of the USSR Pacific Fleet Admiral Smiroy to Ceylon. In 1971 the MI 6 Report prepared by a British agent in Colombo predicted that growing relations between SirimavoBandaranaike’s government and the USSR might buttress an idea of allowing the Soviets to use the Trincomalee harbor. The report states “Soviet use of Trincomalee would enhance the Soviet Navy’s ability to deploy its units in the Indian Ocean in much the same way as the use of Egyptian ports has facilitated its operations in the Mediterranean Sea. Notwithstanding such a geopolitical entanglement did not take place, Trincomalee appeared to be a spark for the West and the Soviets over their Indian Ocean policy.
The significance of Trincomalee had not faded into oblivion by the end of the Cold War. As the mystic nature of time unfolds novel challenges to nations, the rivalry that erupted out of China’s robust rise creates unprecedented tension by transforming the Indian Ocean into a turbulent arena where many powers yearn for hegemony.
The importance of Trincomalee again comes to the fore against the backdrop of these geopolitical factors. The frequent visits made by different nations to the Trincomalee Harbour are emblematic in portraying the strategic manoeuvre deployed by countries in implicitly showing their concern. Since 2020, Trincomalee Harbour has received three US Warships including the USS Fitzgerald, which is a sophisticated missile-guarded destroyer of the US Navy. Apart from the US, Chinese and Russian ships, India’s indigenously built naval ship “ Khanjar” visited Trincomalee harbor in 2023 signifying the strategic importance of Trinco in the 21st century.
Sri Lankan-born former US diplomat Prof. Patrick Mendis often describes Sri Lanka as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, a term that emerged from the Second World War lexicon to refer to a geographically important island depicting its power projections. Undoubtedly Trincomalee Harbour remains the crème de la crème of the unsinkable aircraft carrier called Sri Lanka.
Thus, the government in power should be cautious in handling the position of Trincomalee without granting access to foreign powers as such a move will cause volatility in the region. A plethora of opportunities awaits Colombo to make the best use of Trincomalee Harbour without agitating foreign power. Eventually what Colombo needs to realize from its troubled hobnobbing with the West in the 1980, which displeased New Delhi is that Trincomalee’s importance that falls within the backyard of India will always play its decisive role.
The writer is lecturer at the Faculty of Law, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University.