The natural wealth and strategic value of Trincomalee harbor in eastern Sri Lanka has long been known. However, to date, very little concrete action has been taken to develop and use the port. There was no shortage of reports and plans, but – with the exception of the partial development of giant oil reservoirs in cooperation with India – there was no port and hinterland development.
According to Asian Development Bank ReportTrincomalee is a large natural harbor with water depths ranging from CD-20m to CD-40m. It is also the only fully protected natural harbor in the South Asian subcontinent.
During the Polonnaruwa era of Sri Lankan history (1055-1232 AD), it was a major trading port. Western powers sensed Trincomalee’s strategic value in the 18th century. British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806) said that Trincomalee was “the most valuable colonial possession on the globe” as it gave the British Indian Empire a kind of security that “it had not enjoyed since the founding of the Empire”. . When the British captured Trincomalee in 1796 from the Dutch, Napoleon remarked, “Whoever controls Trincomalee controls the Indian Ocean.”
The first Indian to write about the strategic importance of Trincomalee to India was historian and diplomat KM Panikkar. In his seminal work “India and the Indian Ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on the History of India” published in the 1940s, it emphasized the importance of the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee to the defense of India.
As war clouds rolled in in the 1930s, the British turned Trincomalee into an energy hub and built 101 giant oil tanks. Wishing to maintain their security assets on the island even after Sri Lanka’s independence, they took precautions and entered into a Defense Pact in 1947. After these assets were returned by the Nationalist government to Bandaranaike in 1957, the port of Trincomalee and the oil tanks fell. into disrepair. Successive Sri Lankan governments have focused on the development of the west coast and the port of Colombo for political and logistical reasons.
However, in the 1980s, Trincomalee again attracted the attention of the West. In accordance with port to portThe UN High Level Committee reported that the Port of Trincomalee has “controlled space for the establishment of a free port” and made recommendations for its use. The Japan Overseas Coastal Development Institute (OCDI) presented a similar report in 1984 entitled “Trincomalee Port Development Master Plan and Project”, which proposed container handling equipment and a berth for passenger cruise ships. In 1986, the Sri Lanka National Water Resources Agency (NARA) also recommended the development of the port.
But in the 1980s, geopolitical factors came into play. The 1981 Pentagon map reference to the possibility of a US naval base at Trincomalee irritated New Delhi. At that time, India was pro-Soviet and anti-American. When Sri Lanka launched worldwide tenders in 1982 to develop the Trincomalee oil reservoirs, India suspected that the deal favored bidders with links to the US Navy. The tender has been cancelled.
Letters exchanged between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President JR Jayewarden under the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Agreement stated that Trincomalee (or any other port in Sri Lanka) be made available for military use by any country in a manner detrimental to the interests of India. It was also agreed that the restoration of the Trincomalee oil reservoirs would be carried out by a joint Indo-Lankan venture.
However, due to nationalist opposition to the Agreement, it was only in 2003 that 99 surviving oil tanks were leased to India’s Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) for 35 years. Fifteen of the 99 tanks were repaired and put into service. But it wasn’t until 2015 that LIOC started its bunkering business at the port of Trincomalee. Questions about the legitimacy of the 2003 deal, the issue of land rights, the 30-year war, and nationalist calls to seize the tanks slowed down further development.
In 2022, another deal was struck that awarded the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) 24 tanks, the India-Lanka JV Trinco Petroleum Terminal (TPT) 61 tanks and LIOC 14. The ongoing financial crisis in Sri Lanka, implementation faces a new problem.
With regard to the port of Trincomalee, the Ministry of Shipping and Ports has proposed the establishment of ship repair, shipbuilding and bunkering facilities. The ADB report noted that “the sheltered Trincomalee Bay is ideal for ship-to-ship operations such as ship-to-ship transfer, ship anchorage, loading and unloading of underwater structures, and other shipping-related services.” No shipbuilding yet, but Colombo Dockyard Co. “repair service afloat”. was extended to Trincomalee in 2021.
The facilities in the port are in dire need of renovation. “Due to the lack of proper lights, buoys and beacons, ships are only allowed to enter and leave the port during the daytime,” the ADB said. But night navigation has already been installed in Trincomalee Harbor with the assistance of Japan in the form of a 1 billion yen grant.
Rohan Samarajeeva of the Colombo-based think tank LIRNEasia wrote in a 2017 article on the Port of Trincomalee that the port is in decline in part because the Bay of Bengal has not been a maritime trade hotspot given the state of the country’s economic development. coastal states (such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar). But he saw bright prospects in the rapid development of southern India and Bangladesh. The ports of Sitwe and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar also need to improve the prospects for trade in the Bay of Bengal, but this will require improving the security situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, he warned.
Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in 2022 that economic activity in the Bay of Bengal coastal states would take another 10-15 years to recover.
Wickremesinghe’s immediate plan is to turn Trincomalee into an energy hub with the help of India. Let’s start with the fact that there will be a 100 MW solar power plant in Sampur. For the development of the hinterland, he enlisted the Singapore-based urban development organization Surbana Jurong. He plans to integrate Trincomalee with the North Central and Northern provinces, which have the potential for agricultural exports.
Samarajiva envisioned the port of Trincomalee to be developed as a “secondary port” of Sri Lanka alongside Hambantota. Colombo will continue to be Sri Lanka’s main port given its developed facilities and more developed hinterland, which accounts for 42 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP compared to 5.8 percent contributed by Trincomalee’s Oriental Province.
But even to be a secondary port, Trincomalee would have to have a better connection to Colombo, writes Samarajiva. In 2018, ADB initiated a comprehensive plan for the development of the Colombo-Trincomalee Economic Corridor (CTEC), but there has been no progress in upgrading the railway. The port does not have its own railway station.
Samarajeeva proposed a “dry channel” or seamless rail line for containers between Colombo and Trincomalee. Samarajiva also proposed upgrading Trincomalee’s China Bay Airport to serve as a civilian airport.
Trincomalee is not located in an arid zone, as it receives more than 50 inches of rain each year, Samarajiva noted. But as a port and industrial area, it must have plenty of water, he warned. It will also require adequate social infrastructure in terms of housing, educational and health facilities for the large number of Sri Lankans and foreign personnel who will be assembled there as construction begins.
Despite these problems, another obstacle has come to light, namely the rumor that the United States and India are seeking to establish a naval base at Trincomalee, sparked by a surprise visit by the US First Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for India. Jedidiah Royal on Security in the Pacific. While the rumors are unfounded, they could slow down the development of the port of Trincomalee, as has happened many times in the past.