The natural endowments and strategic value of Trincomalee harbor in eastern Sri Lanka have been well known for a long time. Yet, to date, very little concrete action has been taken to develop and use the port. There has been no dearth of reports and plans, but – except for the partial development of the giant oil tanks in collaboration with India – there has been no development of the port and the hinterland.
According to an Asian Development Bank report, Trincomalee is a large natural harbor with water depths ranging from CD -20 m to CD -40 m. It is also the only entirely sheltered natural harbor in the South Asian subcontinent.
In the Polonnaruwa era of Sri Lankan history (1055-1232 CE) it was a major commercial port. The 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 Britain’s Indian Empire a kind of security that “it had not enjoyed since the Empire’s establishment.” When the British took over Trincomalee in 1796 from the Dutch, Napoleon remarked: “He who controls Trincomalee controls the Indian Ocean.”
The first Indian to write about the strategic importance of Trincomalee for India was the historian and diplomat K.M. Panikkar. In his seminal work “India and the Indian Ocean: an essay on the influence of sea power on Indian history,” published in the 1940s, he stressed the importance of Colombo and Trincomalee ports for the defense of India.
As war clouds gathered in the 1930s, the British turned Trincomalee into an energy hub and built 101 giant oil tanks. Wanting to retain their security assets on the island even after Sri Lanka’s independence, they took the precaution of entering into a Defense Pact in 1947. After these assets were taken back by the nationalist government of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1957, Trincomalee port and the oil tanks fell into disuse. Successive Sri Lankan governments concentrated on the development of the western coast and the Colombo port for political and logistical reasons.
However, in the 1980s, Trincomalee again attracted the West’s attention. According to Port to Port, a high-level U.N. committee reported that Trincomalee port has “controllable space for the creation of a Free Port” and made recommendations for its use. The Overseas Coastal Area Development Institute of Japan (OCDI) submitted a similar report in 1984, entitled “Master Plan and Development project of Trincomalee Port,” which suggested a container trans-shipment facility and a berth for passenger cruise liners. In 1986, Sri Lanka’s National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) also recommended the development of the port.
But in the 1980s, geopolitical factors came into play. A reference in a 1981 Pentagon map to the possibility of a U.S. naval base in Trincomalee raised hackles in New Delhi. India was pro-Soviet and anti-U.S. at that time. When Sri Lanka called for worldwide tenders for the development of the Trincomalee oil tanks in 1982, India suspected that the deal favored bidders with links to the U.S. Navy. The tender was canceled.
In letters exchanged between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene as part of the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, it was stated that Trincomalee (or any other port in Sri Lanka) will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests. It was also stipulated that the restoration of the Trincomalee oil tanks will be undertaken by an Indo-Lankan joint venture.
However, due to nationalist opposition to the Accord, it was only in 2003 that the 99 surviving oil tanks were given to the Indian company Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) on a 35-year lease. Fifteen of the 99 tanks were refurbished and put to use. But it was not until 2015 that LIOC started its bunkering business at Trincomalee port. Questions over the legality of the 2003 deal, the issue of land rights, the 30-year war, and calls by nationalists to take over the tanks stymied further development.
In 2022, another deal was signed according to which the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) got 24 tanks, the joint India-Lankan venture Trinco Petroleum Terminal (TPT) got 61 tanks, and the LIOC got 14. However, in the context of the ongoing financial crisis in Sri Lanka, implementation faces a fresh challenge.
As for Trincomalee port, the Ministry of Shipping and Ports had proposed the creation of ship repair and ship-building and bunkering facilities. An ADB report noted that Trincomalee’s “sheltered bay is ideal for calm water vessel operations such as ship-to-ship transfer, lay-up of vessels, loading and discharging submersible structures and other shipping-related services.” There is no shipbuilding yet, but the “afloat repair service” of the Colombo Dockyard Co. was extended to Trincomalee in 2021.
Facilities in the port badly need to be upgraded. “Due to a lack of adequate lights, buoys, and lighthouses, vessels are only allowed to enter and exit the port during daytime,” the ADB pointed out. But night navigation has now been installed at the Trincomalee harbor, with the assistance of Japan through a 1 billion yen grant.
Rohan Samarajiva of the Colombo-based think tank LIRNEasia wrote in a paper on the Trincomalee port in 2017 that the port has been in the doldrums partly because the Bay of Bengal has not been a hotspot of maritime trade, given the state of economic development of the littoral states (such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar). But he saw bright prospects with south India and Bangladesh developing fast. Myanmar’s Sitwe and Kyaukphyu ports should also boost prospects for Bay of Bengal trade, but for this, the security situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State would need to improve, he cautioned.
Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in 2022 that it would take another 10 to 15 years for economic activity in the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal to pick up.
Wickremesinghe’s immediate plan is to develop Trincomalee as an energy hub with Indian help. To begin with, Sampur will have a 100 MW solar plant. To develop the hinterland, he has roped in Singapore’s urban development organization Surbana Jurong. He plans to integrate Trincomalee with the North Central and Northern provinces, which have agricultural export potential.
Samarajiva envisioned Trincomalee port developing as a “secondary port” of Sri Lanka along with Hambantota. Colombo will continue to be Sri Lanka’s principal port given its established facilities and the more developed hinterland, which accounts for 42 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP as against 5.8 percent contributed by Eastern Province, in which Trincomalee is located.
But even to be a secondary port, Trincomalee will have to have better connectivity with Colombo, Samarajiva wrote. In 2018, the ADB had initiated a comprehensive development plan for the Colombo-Trincomalee Economic Corridor (CTEC), but there has been no progress on the modernization of the railway. The port has no railyard of its own.
Samarajiva suggested connectivity in the form of a “dry canal,” or a seamless container rail line between Colombo and Trincomalee. Samarajiva also suggested upgrading the China Bay airport in Trincomalee to serve as a civil airport.
Trincomalee is not located in an arid zone, as it gets more than 50 inches of annual rainfall, Samarajiva pointed out. But as a port and industrial zone, it will have to have a lot of water, he warned. It will also require adequate social infrastructure in terms of housing, educational and medical facilities for the large number of Sri Lankan and foreign personnel who will congregate there as development gets underway.
Even as it faces these problems, another obstacle has come to light, namely, the rumor that the United States and India are aiming to establish a naval base in Trincomalee, triggered by the sudden visit of U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Jedidiah Royal. Though baseless, the rumor has the potential to stall Trincomalee port’s development – as has happened so many times in the past.