Andaman & Nicobar Islands – India’s Unsinkable Carrier
The Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) islands are the largest chain of islands in India. Despite being over 1,300 Km away from the nearest mainland Indian city (Chennai), the islands have occupied an important part in India’s ancient and modern history.
The islands were known to mainland India for over 15 centuries and often acted as a stopover destination for trade with the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The A&N Islands were an important naval military base for the southern Indian Chola Empire under Rajendra Chola, against the Sriwijaya Empire (modern-day Indonesia). Later, the Andaman and Nicobar islands drew the attention of the Danish, the Portuguese and finally the British, when it became a part of the British Indian Empire. As a British territory, the islands became infamous for its ‘Kaala Pani’ prison, for Indian freedom fighters and dissidents of the British rule from across the Indian subcontinent. During the Second World War, A&N became India’s first fortress for the Axis-aided Indian National Army (INA).
This article attempts to highlight the strategic role of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and its pivotal role in ensuring India’s security in the Bay of Bengal and the IOR.
Andaman & Nicobar Islands – A military perspective
The A&N Islands are over a 1,000 km away from mainland India. Its position as a gateway to Southeast Asia, proximity to the militarily crucial Malacca Straits and the abundance of natural resources make it an important factor in the strategic equation of the planners in New Delhi. As one of India’s Union Territories (UTs), it is directly administered from New Delhi.
The A&N Islands are barely 90 nautical miles away from Indonesia and only 22 nautical miles away from Myanmar. As a result of its relative distance to the Southeast Asian countries, the island chain has also been party to a take-over attempt by Indonesia during the 1965 war, when Soekarno’s Indonesia openly supported Pakistan against India. This has been well documented in reports by former naval officers in-charge of the islands after 1962 Sino-Indian conflict.
Despite these incidents in the sixties, India has been slow in ramping up and upgrading the islands’ defence infrastructure in any meaningful manner. Its remoteness, coupled with the immediate concern of Pakistan and China on the northern borders means that the islands have for long, evaded the eyes of strategic planners in New Delhi.
However, there are winds of change and currently India hosts its only tri-services command on the islands and is located in the capital Port Blair. The force located here has over 15 warships of the Indian Navy, two sea bases, four air force and naval air bases on the islands, with the Indian Air Force placing its mainstay, the multirole Su-30MKI aircraft, on the islands.
However, despite this military presence, the islands remain limited in terms of capabilities for surveillance and force projection. Port Blair houses the only surveillance station on the islands and that too is operational only for a limited number of hours every day.
Role of A&N Islands in a Sino-Indian Conflict
In the mid-2000s, India was rudely awakened to a suddenly emergent China and its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. The strategy meant that China would use its newfound wealth and influence around the countries of the sub-continent and therefore establish Chinese bases to surround India.
Since 2000, China began rapidly expanding its naval and naval aviation capabilities with a watchful eye on the Indian Ocean. As a result, China today has the world’s second largest submarine fleet with over 67 diesel-electric submarines and over a dozen nuclear submarines. To further drive its point home, China has repeatedly sent military delegations & naval submarines to Sri Lanka and other neighbouring countries of India.
While the possibility of a full-scale conflict is distant, the A&N Islands can become the unsinkable aircraft carrier to ensure that it remains distant. Sitting at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, the islands form a natural aircraft carrier and a permanent fixture for military supplies in the region. Despite being reticent to precipitate any conflict, New Delhi has the option of using A&N Islands as its own Cuba (similar to the Soviets using Cuba as a missile base against the US) if conditions so demand.
Indian Ocean: Dragon’s Designs
For decades, China remained a predominantly land-based force with a brown water navy and limited expeditionary capabilities in warfare. Beijing fully realized the limits of its oceanic power projection during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996 when its smaller naval forces could not oust the US Naval forces which were deployed on behalf of Taiwan. The crisis further compelled the strategic planners in Beijing to take a note of the limited naval capabilities and focus on methods to develop them.
The Dragon’s immediate concern then were two regions: the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, both of which carry over 85% of China’s international bilateral trade. Beijing realized that in case of a conflict, any attempt to blockade the trade routes by a potential rival would yield tremendous loss to the Chinese economy and therefore directly impact its military offensive capabilities in the future.
Despite the heavy investment in One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative to provide an alternative surface route for its goods and oil supplies, China will continue to remain dependent on the oceanic route. In addition to wooing countries financially in the region, Beijing has embarked on aggressively pitching for resource exploitation in the Indian Ocean and is keen to build artificial islands in the region so as to claim exclusive economic zones in the region. This is one of China’s key strategies in laying a claim to the entire South China Sea continental shelf, which it is keen to replicate in other areas of interest including the Indian Ocean.
Regional Implications ::
Considering the strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India needs to think of them as more than just a distant listening post in the larger IOR. Instead New Delhi should aim to utilise the islands’ proximity to major trade and shipping centres like Singapore, which is only 950 kms from the capital Port Blair, as well as Yangon and Phuket which are even closer.
Myanmar is the only ASEAN nation to share land borders with India; the two countries also share a long maritime boundary in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Earlier this year, the navies of the two countries signed an agreement to facilitate coordinated maritime patrols on the islands. Now with the NLD in power and a fresh start after the removal of sanctions, Myanmar should look into joint exploration with India of possible hydro-carbon potential in the Andaman Sea basin.
Throwing a Cog
It is not unfamiliar for defence analysts and policy makers to see that Beijing is quick to reword its claims when it comes to complying with norms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or any other international navigation body, while defending its own interests. This was evident from the South China Sea incident with Philippines where China openly ignored the ruling by The Hague Tribunal. Its rising financial clout coupled with a laser-like focus on enhancing maritime military capabilities means that China aims to be a formidable blue-water navy in the future and is keen to play an influential role in the Indian Ocean.
When seen from New Delhi’s perspective, the A&N Islands throw a cog in Beijing’s maritime wheel. Post commissioning of India’s first tri-services command beyond mainland India in 2014, India has increased the rotational deployment of its P-8I maritime patrol aircraft to and from the island chain, keeping a close watch on the submarine and warship movements. New Delhi is also keen to boost its aerial surveillance and troop transport capabilities to and from the island and is keen on acquiring the US-2 amphibious aircraft from Japan. The islands are slated to get their first missile testing facility soon with the Indian Navy keen on expanding the runway at Port Blair to 10,000 feet in total length.
It is highly plausible (and the authors are hopeful) that in the future, as India completes its maritime plan to have a three-aircraft carrier battle group position, one aircraft carrier with its complement of support elements may be permanently based from the A&N isles. This expansion however, needs to be expedited. With important military infrastructure projects on the island either delayed or currently under long negotiations with other ministries, time is limited for India to ramp up its near-region expeditionary capabilities to be able to meet a hostile PLAN, should the need arise.
Such a possibility cannot be ruled out, given China’s increasing interest in observing Indian naval formations in the Bay of Bengal through regular attempts to enter into the exclusive economic zone of the islands along with the acquisition of the Cocos Island from Myanmar and converting it into a listening post for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands continue to offer tremendous strategic value to India, even with the limited infrastructure available on the island territory. As the largest chain of islands in India, the Andaman and Nicobar would play a pivotal role in checkmating China’s aggressive overtures in the IOR.
However, the role that the islands can play is in the hands of the policy makers in New Delhi. The policy makers here have a choice to either continue viewing the islands as a permanent garrison and outpost territory with only limited naval and offensive military capabilities, or, take a conscious view of the changing regional geopolitics and work towards transforming the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a highly integrated asset for India, well protected by planned military assets.
The sooner New Delhi ends the isolation of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the faster India will be able to ensure India’s dominance in the ocean mass spanning from the Straits of Malacca to the Horn of East Africa.
Co-authored with Utkarsh Ganesh, Mugdha Dhavalikar & Balamurali K