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As a prominent place for naval harboring and maritime security in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is an ideal location for a naval base to oversee the Indian Ocean and its increasingly busy shipping lanes. No other nation in the South Asian region can claim the importance Sri Lanka has in terms of its geography. Places such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Maldives, all have their own geographic and strategic value, but from a naval strategic point of view, Sri Lanka brings more advantages in terms of distances to strategic points along the littoral and protection of fleets and sea-lanes.
In the past, Sri Lanka accorded permission to US naval forces to use the harbor at Trincomalee for rest and recuperation. At one point, there was widespread rumor that Trincomalee might become a US naval base. Since 1983 however, Sri Lanka’s importance in terms of a possible base diminished considerably as a result of the security situation that prevailed within the country. However, with Sri Lanka’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, should the US pursue establishing a naval base in Sri Lanka?
Indian Ocean Geographic Significance
The Indian Ocean has economic, political and strategic significance for the whole world. It provides major sea routes connecting the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia with Europe and the Americas. It is considered as a hub of natural resources and is rich in several important minerals, raw material and marine food. “The region accounts for 80 per cent of world extraction of gold, 52 percent of tin, 28 percent manganese, 25 percent of nickel, 18 percent bauxite, 12 percent zinc and 77 percent of natural rubber production in the world.” Almost one fourth of the all maritime cargo destined for trade and two thirds of the world’s oil are loaded and/or offloaded in the ports of this region. Furthermore, an estimated 40 percent of the world’s offshore oil production comes from the Indian Ocean and more than half of the world’s oil and gas deposits are said to be located in this region.
The Indian Ocean has a number of important seas and gulfs as well. The Arabian Sea separates the peninsula of India and Africa, and hugs the littoral of the oil rich Persian Gulf. The Strait of Homuz and Gulf of Oman command the entry to the Persian Gulf. The Gulf of Aden ends at the strait of Bab el Mandeb and controls entry into the Red Sea. The Gulf of Malacca in the Bay of Bengal controls the entry to the Indian Ocean from the East.
All the oil supplies to Southeast and East Asia that originate in the Middle East are shipped from ports in the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf. The sea-lanes from here converge in the Arabian Sea, and then pass through the Gulf of Mannar and curve off the western, southern and southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. Eighty percent of Japan's oil supplies and 60 percent of China's oil supplies are shipped on this sea-lane. Almost half of the world's container traffic passes through the choke points of this sea-lane and its branches in the Indian Ocean.
Along with its growing economic significance, the Indian Ocean borders 36 states with a total population of over two billion. Additionally, 11 hinterland countries have security and economic interests tied to the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean has several nuclear powered states and a number of states with nuclear ambition along its littoral. The region is also home to some of the world’s most volatile failed and failing states. Poverty, terrorism, fundamentalism and piracy are also glaring issues of concern in the region.
Sri Lanka’s Geographic/Strategic Importance
Sri Lanka’s geographic location in the Indian Ocean positions it to play a very important part in any maritime movement between the West and the East. The distance from Sri Lanka to the Strait of Homuz and the Strait of Malacca is approximately 2,000 miles; this means Sri Lanka is located in the most central maritime route between the Persian Gulf and Indonesia. It is also the most central location to reach troubled spots throughout the Indian Ocean’s littoral. It can also readily support operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan or South East Asia. Positioning a naval force in Sri Lanka would also eliminate the need to shift military assets from other geographic areas as was done during the Gulf war of 1991 and during the Iran and Afghanistan crises of 1980.
The geo-strategic importance of Sri Lankan has been noted throughout history. Since the 17th century, it has attracted the Portuguese, Dutch, French, the British, and the Indians, in succession. During the Cold War, United States (US) and the Soviet Union competed for naval supremacy over the Indian Ocean. Both nations considered the Indian Ocean as an important waterway to further their political, military and ideological interests. Both wanted to establish a naval base in Sri Lanka because of its location in the Indian Ocean. However, Indian pressure and the non-aligned political stance of the Sri Lankan government prevented the superpowers from gaining that vital advantage.
Sri Lanka is also a great communication center for the Indian Ocean, which is why the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in South Asia chose it to locate his headquarters during World War II. The central position of the island between Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz makes it an ideal communication center and it offers a very good line of communication between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
The Sri Lankan ports of Trincomalee and Colombo are two of the best ports available in the whole region, in both military and economic terms. British Admiral Horatio Nelson described the Sri Lankan harbor of Trincomalee as “the finest harbor in the world.” The importance of the Trincomalee harbor was such that Captain A.T. Mahan in his book “The influence of sea power in history 1660-1783” stated that it is an excellent and a defensible harbor that acquires first rate strategic importance.
The bases of Trincomalee on the eastern coast and Katunayake on the western coast played a pivotal role for the allied forces in the war against Japan after the loss of the Singapore naval base in 1942. The importance of the British bases in Sri Lanka was such that the British continued to use them under a defense treaty after Sri Lankan independence.
Trincomalee continues to be rated as one of the best natural ports in the world due to its location and extraordinary depth in the inner harbor. The entrance to the harbor is four miles wide and five miles across, East to West. The inner harbor covers about 12 square miles and is secured by outcrops of huge rocks and small islets. A fleet, so protected, could easily dominate the Bay of Bengal and the whole of Indian Ocean sea-lanes. Therefore, any power that controls Trincomalee will have a great naval strategic advantage in the region.
US and Sri Lankan Relations
U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka is characterized by respect for its independence, sovereignty, and moderate nonaligned foreign policy; support for the country's unity, territorial integrity, and democratic institutions; and encouragement of its social and economic development.  Since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, the US has assisted in developing the Sri Lankan economy, political stature and provided limited military aid along the way.
The US is Sri Lanka’s largest single export market, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the country’s overseas sales. During the 2004 tsunami, the US provided $135 million in relief and reconstruction assistance. In addition, the International Broadcast Bureau of the US, formerly Voice of America, operates a radio transmitting station in Sri Lanka and the U.S. Armed Forces maintains a limited military-to-military relationship with the Sri Lanka defense establishment.
Building a US naval base in Sri Lanka would have its challenges. Sri Lanka's foreign policy since her independence has been a commitment in principle to nonalignment and the necessity of preserving relations with India without sacrificing independence. Sri Lanka is within India’s sphere of influence and at the very heart of its Indian Ocean defense. Any military-related activity with Sri Lanka by another country would have to be done in collaboration with India.
China, as a Pacific Ocean nation is increasingly interested in gaining a foothold in the Indian Ocean in a quest to enhance its regional power and influence. China has shown a steady increase in its interest of Sri Lanka. China was very active in supporting Sri Lanka in the final phase of its war with the Tamil Tigers by providing weapons, financing, and its veto power in support of Sri Lanka in the United Nations human rights council. China is funding its “Chain of Pearls” port facilities in southern Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which is viewed as a possible first step in gaining economic and geopolitical control within the region.
India is deeply concerned about China’s growing influence in what it regards as its sphere of influence. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee told the Indian parliament in a June 2009 statement “In our anxiety over the Sri Lankan war refugees, we should not forget the strategic importance of that island and it is not only their security, it is closely connected with our security, surely we would not like to have the playground of international players at our backyard.”
Already one of the primary naval forces of the Indian Ocean, India seeks even greater maritime presence in the region to protect its national security and economic interests. As India’s ambitions grow, so grows the economic and military convergence of interests between India and the US within the region. In fact, India is now working with the US to maintain security of their Indian Ocean sea-lanes. The US believes that its relationship with India could enlarge India’s security perimeter to achieve a position of greater influence in the region. The important factor here is the growing geo-strategic relationship between India and the US.
In establishing a naval base infrastructure is of major importance. Sri Lanka has 13 Airfields and four main ports. However, it has only one international airport. All other airfields are used by the Sri Lanka Air Force for operational purposes. Out of these, the most important are the airfields in Trincomalee and Katunayake, due to their proximity to the main shipping ports. A second international airport is being constructed at the southern port city of Hambanthota where the government opened its new harbour funded by the Chinese.
According to the World Port Index, the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee are highly conducive for naval basing. These two ports have been used by the Royal Navy extensively during the Second World War and presently the Sri Lanka Navy maintains two of their major naval commands in these two ports. However, the availability of infrastructure in these ports is not sufficient to meet the requirements of a fully fledged naval base.
Tied to the ports and airfields are roads and railways. Sri Lanka has a well developed transport system that includes a road network of approximately 100,000 kilometers (62,140 miles). National roads carry over 70 percent of the traffic in Sri Lanka. However, uncontrolled roadside development, as well as years of neglect and poor road maintenance has led to low travel speeds.
More than 50 percent of the national roads have poor or very poor surface condition and many are seriously congested. Since the war ended the government has started a new project to develop the road network of the country. It is already on the verge of completing two main highways known as the southern highway and the Colombo Katunayake highway. Over and above these two highways, the country’s road network is developing at a rapid pace elevating the infrastructure facilities throughout the country. Sri Lanka also has a rail network consisting of about 1,944 kilometers (1,208 miles) of tracks which links Colombo with the rest of the country. However, rail transport facilities are limited to some of the major cities on the Island with poor maintenance being a major problem for the development of the system.
Sri Lanka has enough electrical capacity to fulfill the requirements of a naval base in Colombo or Trincomalee. Telecommunications is one sector that Sri Lanka has vastly improved. Due to the heavy public investment made in this sector throughout the last five years, Sri Lanka Telecom has expanded and modernized its service by replacing outdated switching systems and cable networks with modern and powerful digital switching systems. Submarine cables extend from Sri Lanka to Indonesia and Djibouti. Currently there are two INTELSAT earth stations over Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. However, the communication facilities are surely not developed to the level that a US naval base would require. A large investment will have to be made to improve the standards of communication facilities, especially in Trincomalee. Overall, the availability of infrastructure in Sri Lanka demands a great deal of improvement for the establishment of a US naval base.
From a strategic point of view, Sri Lanka is the most ideal location to fulfill a plethora of tasks in furthering not only the security interests of the US, but those of Sri Lanka and India. Whether it is maritime security, nuclear proliferation, piracy, control of terrorism or even the mitigation of the spread of Chinese influence, Sri Lanka is a most ideal location for a naval base.
Sri Lanka’s main concern at this time is the reconstruction and development of its economic and social structure. Falling agricultural productivity, lack of income earning opportunities, diminished investor interest, unemployment and poor infrastructure are the consequences of the long war between the government and the Tamil Tigers. Sri Lanka would most certainly welcome the support of the US in this endeavor, maybe in exchange for a naval base--with the consent and/or collaboration with India. Can either the US or India otherwise withstand the ambitions of China within the region, particularly its growing interest in Sri Lanka posed by its geographic advantage?
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