Andaman and Nicobar: India’s ‘strategic anchor’ holds ground

New Delhi is on the cusp of clearing a proposal for defence infrastructure building on the Andaman & Nicobar Islands (ANI). According to the media reports, the Modi government is ready with a 10-year-long “roll on” plan to create facilities for additional troo

ps, warships, aircraft and drones on the islands, strengthening the existing military facilities. This comes on the back of the news of the commissioning of INS Kohassa, an Indian naval base, at Shibpur in the Northern Andaman. Kohassa is the Navy’s third aviation centre at the ANI. It is, like INS Baaz at Campbell Bay in the Greater Nicobar, a naval air station that has been upgraded into an aviation base.

The main driver for these developments is undoubtedly the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. There has been a surge of anxiety in New Delhi over the recent deployment of PLAN submarines in the IOR. Indian observers suspect that in the guise of anti-piracy mission, Chinese subs have been collecting vital information about the underwater operating environment in the sub-continental littorals. At the Raisina Dialogue in early January this year, at a panel discussion between five service chiefs from ‘Quad’ countries plus France, Admiral Lanba, the Indian Naval chief, was candid in stating Indian concerns vis-à-vis China. The PLAN, the Admiral averred, is making its presence felt in the Indian Ocean (even if the Indian Navy is still the dominant force in the region). More importantly, China’s ongoing naval modernisation — with over 80 ships commissioned in the last five years — has ensured a constant high-quality Chinese naval presence in the Northern Indian Ocean.

The expansion of the existing naval air stations at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into full fledged aviation bases then seems motivated by the need to enable an effective surveillance of Chinese ships and submarines in the South Asian seas, presumably through a more expansive deployment of assets such as the P-8I aircraft. For the Navy, there is no more onerous task than protecting the busy trade routes that the islands straddle.

Even from a domain awareness perspective, the facilities at the ANI are significant. The Indian Navy recently inaugurated an information fusion centre in Gurugram which is likely to be joined by many regional navies. India is at the forefront of information collection and sharing endeavor and would like to play a lead role in improving domain awareness in the IOR. Better surveillance facilities, and naval assets like the Khukri-class warships positioned on strategic nodes at the ANI, will raise the effectiveness of security endeavours.

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Beyond active surveillance and submarine hunting, however, the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) is an important marker of India’s strategic presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean. In recent years, the Bay of Bengal has emerged as a critical area of interest for China and Chinese companies have been setting up critical shipping and energy infrastructure in Bay states. In a bid to emphasise its regional preeminence, the Indian Navy has raised the tempo of naval operations in the Bay of Bengal. Reinforcing strategic infrastructure on the islands is a way of highlighting India’s combat prowess.

Over the years, Indian commentators have often expressed frustration with the long delay in building strategic capability at the ANC. However, what outwardly appears to be a straightforward choice hasn’t always been an easy decision for New Delhi to make. Truth is that on the matter of the strategic development of the ANC, India’s defence and foreign policy establishments haven’t always been on the same page. A section of India’s foreign policy community has argued against turning the islands into a strategic-military hub, on the grounds that it wouldn’t sit well with Southeast Asian countries, who perceive India to be benevolent and benign power. Indeed, when India first began developing a military presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the mid-1990s, Malaysia and Indonesia didn’t quite view it as a positive development. But the logic of ‘minimalist security presence’ was seemingly discarded when China’s growing presence in South Asia began pushing India on the defensive in its own backyard.

As regional maritime forces have expanded their cooperation with the Indian Navy in recent years, there is a new appreciation in Southeast Asia of India’s potential in offsetting China’s dominance of littoral-Asia. As a consequence, the consensus in New Delhi over the ANI has also shifted. Secure in the knowledge that a strategically proactive posture wouldn’t make India’s regional credentials any less estimable, Delhi today is keener than ever to develop the islands militarily. The appointment of Admiral D.K. Joshi, a former Indian Navy chief, as the Lt. Governor at the ANI in October 2017 was a sign that a plan for a strategic build-up at the ANC was in the works.

Yet, the development plan also has an equally significant economic component. In 2015, when the government had first announced its intention to transform the Andaman and Nicobar into a maritime hub — allocating 10,000 crores for the endeavour — the emphasis was on tourism and port development. In recognition of the islands’ potential for trade enhancement, there is a plan to build a transshipment terminal at Campbell Bay, the largest of the Nicobar Islands, located just 90 km away from the Malacca Strait. Efforts are on to boost air connectivity and helicopter tourism, with INS Kohassa being developed for both military and civil use. This is likely to provide an impetus to the Centre’s UDAN scheme to boost regional connectivity.

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On the recommendation of the NITI Aayog — mandated by the Island Development Agency to head a ‘Holistic Development Program’ — the government recently invited global players to invest in a wide-ranging social and infrastructure development programme, including investments in resorts and other tourist infrastructure at the Andaman. Authorities, of course, are being careful; they know their plans need to take into account the fragile ecology of the islands, which conservationists say is bound to be threatened by massive infrastructure creation.

For the Indian Navy, the ANI’s core utility remains its potential for nontraditional security cooperation. Over the years, the ANC has been a ‘staging post’ for India’s humanitarian efforts in the Bay of Bengal. Building on its 2004 tsunami relief experience, the Navy has undertaken a wide range of HADR operations in the regional seas, ranging from major evacuation efforts in Yemen, to alleviating a drinking water crisis in the Maldives and providing relief supplies to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Indonesia during natural disasters. The Navy’s biennial MILAN exercises at Port Blair are the largest gathering of navies in the region (including from Southeast Asia) and gives special attention to humanitarian relief and non-combatant evacuation drills. To justify its ‘security provider’ status, the Indian Navy realises the need to maintain necessary force levels on the islands.

Lastly, developing the Andaman and Nicobar has the potential to boost jointness at the ANC — India’s only operational tri-services command. In a series of moves since August last year, the government has shown it is keen for a more genuine integration of the military. In July last year, in the first restructuring of top defence management, the Navy has (apparently) been given permanent charge of the strategic Andaman Nicobar Command, a post that it earlier shared in rotation with the Air Force and the Army. Now, the commander-in-chief of the ANC has also been empowered to requisition military assets from the three services, handle land acquisition cases, and been granted additional financial powers.

 

 

 

 

 

Source:- ORF Online

 

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