With India’s Quiet Support, U.S., Japan Eye Trincomalee Foothold

Nitin A. Gokhale New Delhi 24 January 2019

The United States and Japan, quietly backed by India, are working on modernising and developing the key port of Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s eastern sea board as an economic hub to counter the growing Chinese footprint in the island nation strategically located in the Indian Ocean, multiple sources familiar with the development have told Strategic News International.

At the moment, the plan is limited to creating a world-class economic zone around Trincomalee, considered one of the best natural harbours in the world, the sources added, referring to recent reports that the United States was eyeing the port to build a military base. The U.S.-Japan push to upgrade Trincomalee comes on the back of China acquiring controlling rights to the Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka by managing to get a 99-year lease as well as buying a substantial stake in the Colombo Ports project. Japan, alarmed by China’s push in taking controlling stakes in key ports across the Indian Ocean region, is keen not to be left out of the race to have significant footprint in crucial locations, has decided to work in close partnership with the United States and India to overcome the handicap.

Trincomalee was a natural choice to jointly work on given its key location and importance. It was a major allied logistics base in the 1930s and 1940s until a Japanese kamikaze attack in 1942 destroyed most of the 100 plus oil tanks that had been established by the British government to supply and replenish its forces deployed in South and South-East Asia. Ironically, the Japanese are now most keen on using it to counter growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region. The U.S. and particularly its Hawaii-headquartered Indo-Pacific Command is fully backing the Japanese effort to acquire a foothold in Sri Lanka, albeit not in the form of any military base in the classical sense—at least not yet.

New Delhi, which has in the past objected to U.S. attempts to make inroads in the island nation—mostly notably in the early- and mid-1980s when Voice of America wanted to establish a transmitter in Sri Lanka—has remained in the background so far letting Tokyo and Washington know that it can help in building infrastructure projects as long as India’s primacy in the region is acknowledged and understood by them. India has already refurbished some of the 100-odd tanks at the Trincomalee oil farm and has plans to do more in collaboration with Ceylon Petroleum Corporation in coming years. Beyond that, India is apparently happy to let the U.S. and Japan help Sri Lanka in creating a vital infrastructure asset.

Last year in August, Itsunori Onodera,Japan’s defence minister, during his maiden visit to Sri Lanka, toured all the three major ports—Colombo, Trincomalee and Hambantota—and later offered Japanese help to boost Sri Lanka’s maritime capabilities by granting two offshore patrol boats. The U.S. too has pledged to grant 40 million dollars to Sri Lanka under its new security assistance initiative to help countries in Indo-Pacific, announced last August. Interestingly, Onodera had stopped over in India before going to Sri Lanka and held talks with India’s defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. U.S., India and Japan already hold a trilateral Naval exercise—Malabar—every year. Close on the heels of the Japanese defence minister’s visit, a U.S. amphibious task force also visited Sri Lanka and docked at Trincomalee. However, despite a clear anti-China intent, officials and leaders take great care to describe the coordination as a stand-alone step. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for instance said late last year, while unveiling additional financial help for the Indo-Pacific region: “We’re convinced that American engagement in the Indo-Pacific benefits all the nations in that region. We want it to be free, we want it to be open. We’re not looking for dominance. We’re looking for partnerships. Others choose to behave differently. We want these to be commercially available projects led by the American private sector in a way that benefits the entire region and the world.”

The signs of a coordinated U.S.-India-Japan pushback against China’s aggressive push in the Indian Ocean Region, is now clearly visible not just in Sri Lanka but across smaller nations too. The best example of quiet, behind-the-scene work in the region against Chinese attempts to subvert democracies and rules-based order is the recent political change in the Maldives. However, the competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific has just begun and all great powers will continue to jostle for space more intensely in coming years.

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