NEW DELHI: The United States is looking to India, its newfound strategic ally, to covertly expand its vital naval influence in South Asia to bolster its growing military presence in the region.

The United States also wants India’s help in containing China’s proliferating sway in the Indian Ocean region.

To achieve these twin aims, the United States’ covetous eyes are on eastern Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee port as a staging point for its naval assets stationed in and around its Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean.

To gain access to the “strategic jewel” that is Trincomalee, one of the world’s biggest natural deep-sea harbours, it has “persuaded” India to step in as Washington’s “proxy” to extend its influence over the port without overtly arousing suspicion of superpower hegemony.

To make this move possible, the United States, as part of establishing its long-term presence in Asia, has successfully pressured the Tamil Tigers rebels — who have been fighting for nearly two decades for an independent homeland — to persevere in their peace talks with the Sri Lankan government.

Located on the busy East-West shipping route stretching from the Suez Canal to the Malacca Straits, Trincomalee controls the Indian Ocean.

Through a combination of diplomacy, bullying and astute bargaining, a paranoid India had for several decades managed to prevent outside powers — especially the United States - from having access to Trincomalee.

But “with the United States now India’s most coveted ally, Delhi is unlikely to object to Washington neatly tying up various strategic bonds to fully dominate the Asian region,” a senior Indian security officer said.

Delhi is hoping to profit from its growing defence relations with the United States, he added.

During the Cold War years, the United States had wanted to station a Voice of America transmitter in the area as a precursor to its warships using the harbour, but India had steadfastly opposed any such move.

One of the key clauses of the 1987 accord that led to the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka to disarm the Tigers declared that Trincomalee — particularly its oil tanks, located around 20 km from the Indian coast — would not be controlled by any foreign power “inimical” to India.

But all that has now changed.

After Sep. 11, the Indian-US defence relations are confined not only to strategic cooperation through dialogue, periodic policy reviews and reciprocal visits by senior officials and service commanders. They extend to joint military manoeuvres and the inflow of US military hardware.

Expanding bilateral strategic cooperation led to the reactivation of the Indo-US Defence Policy Group (DPG), the apex military coordination body to further negotiations between the Pentagon and India’s ministry of defence that were stalled after sanctions following New Delhi’s 1998 nuclear tests.

In a quiet, 35-year deal recently clinched with Sri Lanka — with US approval — the state-owned Indian Oil Corp (IOC) has hammered out a 200 million rupee (4.16 million US dollar) agreement to refurbish the voluminous oil tanks at Trincomalee.

This refurbishing is happening for the first time after World War II, when British warships used them to refuel.

Currently, Ceylon Petroleum Corp operates only 15 of Trincomalee’s 99 storage tanks, limiting sales to 25 tonnes per vessel and making the fuel expensive.

But once IOC activates the tanks and brings in petroleum products from its nearby Madras refinery on the Indian mainland, supplies will be augmented to 12,250 kilolitres, making fuel not only cheaper but increased to 200 tonnes per ship.

To further cement its presence across the island, the IOC is also planning on taking over 100 retail petroleum outlets. The two sides are also considering an offshoot off the proposed pipeline between the southern Indian cities of Madras and Madurai to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

Providing the entire operation protection at Trincomalee will be US-trained Sri Lankan soldiers. Under Operation Balanced Style, US Sea Air Land Forces (SEALS) specialists have begun training Sri Lankan army and navy personnel in security techniques to protect Trincomalee.

Sri Lankan police teams are being sent to the United States for anti-terrorism courses with emphasis on bomb disposal. US military cooperation has also been extended to the island’s air force that operates a wide range of Israeli-made combat aircraft.

The US Navy has long been looking for access to a strategically located South Asian port for its Fifth Fleet, established in 1996 for permanent deployment in the Indian Ocean to bolster the US Middle East Force.

US missile strikes during the war in Afghanistan were executed, among others, by Fifth Fleet warships, demonstrating America’s ability to exercise military power against littoral states deep inland.

But security sources said in a recent reassessment that Washington realised that to successfully maintain its sustained forward deployment posture in the Indian Ocean region and to counter growing Chinese ambitions in the area, it needed access to strategically located bases like Trincomalee.

The United States has acknowledged the Indian Navy as a “stabilising force” in the Indian Ocean and wants a closer working relationship with it that includes arrangements to patrol the sea lanes from the North Arabian Sea to the Malacca straits off the Singapore coast.

Since October 2001, Indian Navy ships, along with the US Navy, have been patrolling the piracy-ridden Malacca Straits, through which pass over 80 per cent of Japan’s oil supplies from the Middle East. The Trincomalee connection will further tighten the US security network. —Dawn/InterPress News Service.