The Andaman and Nicobar Islands: New Delhi’s Bulwark in the Indian Ocean

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The Andaman and Nicobar Islands: New Delhi’s Bulwark in the Indian Ocean

As China expands its presence in the Indian Ocean region, India is investing billions in developing the strategically located island chain.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands: New Delhi’s Bulwark in the Indian Ocean
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Anirvan Shukla

In 2015, the Indian government drew up a 100,000 million Indian rupee plan funded by the Ministry of Shipping and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration to transform the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) into the country’s first maritime hub. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the islands for the first time, inaugurating several development projects relating to connectivity, energy, and tourism, among other things. Most recently, he inaugurated the Chennai-Andaman and Nicobar undersea internet cable, which is set to provide a high-speed internet connection to seven remote islands of the ANI chain.

The islands have also seen the recent installation of 31 GPS strong motion sensors and accelerometers, SMS alerts dissemination systems, 13 Automated Weather Stations, State Emergency Operation Centers, and the commissioning of a solar power plant at Attam Pahad. The government of India under NITI Aayog’s “Holistic Development Program” for the islands has invited global players to invest in a wide-ranging social and infrastructure development program, including investments in resorts and other tourist infrastructure.

These developments show how New Delhi is fortifying its southernmost frontier at sea and gearing up for something bigger. As the Indo-Pacific region with its growing prominence becomes a theater of opportunity for India, the ANI have gained an important position in New Delhi’s foreign policy.

Strategic Location

In January 2016, New Delhi released a maritime security strategy paper that emphasized the strategic significance of the islands and underscored their importance for India’s power projection into the Western Pacific and beyond.

The ANI chain, which is located adjacent to the western entrance of the Strait of Malacca, straddles one of the busiest sea routes in the world. Containing about 30 percent of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), ANI connects South Asia with Southeast Asia. The northernmost point of this archipelago is merely 22 nautical miles from Myanmar and the southernmost point, Indira Point, is only 90 nautical miles from Indonesia.

In a 2017 analysis, Balaji Chandramohan pointed out that the Andaman and Nicobar islands “dominate the Bay of Bengal, the Six Degree and the Ten Degree Channels that more than sixty thousand commercial vessels pass each year.” Chandramohan further noted that the islands act as “a physical barrier that secures busy Sea Lines of Communications by creating a series of chokepoints: The Preparis Channel in the north, the Ten Degree Channel between the Andaman and Nicobar island groups and the Six Degree Channel to the south. While the first two sea lanes are used infrequently by commercial shipping, all vessels that pass through the Malacca Strait must traverse the Six Degree Channel.”

China: The Factor Behind India’s ANI Fortification

Writing for the Observer Research Foundation in September 2021, Sohini Bose and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury argued that “China’s efforts to expand its footprint in the IOR to overcome its ‘Malacca Dilemma’ (China’s fear of a maritime blockade at the Straits of Malacca’) and fulfill its ‘Maritime Silk Road’ ambitions have fueled apprehensions about freedom of navigation in these waters.”

As part of China’s growing presence, the Economic Times reported in January 2020 that six Chinese research vessels were spotted in the IOR in a single month and that nearly 600 fishing boats from China were present here each year from 2015 till 2019. In January 2021, a Chinese survey ship, Xiang Yang Hong 03, was accused of “running dark” (operating without transmitting its position) in Indonesian waters. This ship was heading toward the Indian Ocean.

In April of this year, at the Raisina Dialogue, India’s former Naval Chief Admiral Karambir Singh said that New Delhi had observed the regular presence of the Chinese navy in the IOR over the past decade. China’s expedited naval modernization, with more than 80 ships commissioned in the last five years, reflects its aspirations to embrace maritime hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region, including the IOR.

A retired Commodore-rank official of the Indian Navy, who wished not to be named, said, “The strategic importance of ANI is impelled primarily by the growing Chinese presence and involvement in the Indian Ocean Region.” He further added, “China’s interest in the IOR is motivated by its strategy for expanding its influence beyond the Pacific and South China Sea, which has initiated a demand for strategic bases in the region.”

Considering the growing Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific, the officer enumerated two consequences that could be expected in the region. First, by gaining ground at these critical chokepoints, China could use them to its benefit during a future conflict or a standoff with India. Second, a counterbalance by the Indian Navy is to be expected, including by the increased deployment of anti-submarine warfare aircraft in the ANI.

ANI and Security Collaborations

To counter China’s attempts to expand its footprint in this region, the littoral countries, as well as the global powers, are engaging in security collaboration near ANI to ensure free movement through the surrounding waters.

The Japan-U.S. “fishhook” SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System, a chain of sensors designed to track submarines) will touch ANI, creating a counter-wall against Chinese submarines loitering in the Andaman Sea and deep South China Sea. It will be a crucial collaboration, as Japan will be sharing intelligence with the United Kingdom, Australia, and India.

In addition, the development of a transshipment port at Great Nicobar, which will be located close to the Malacca Strait and the East-West shipping route connecting Europe and Africa with Asia, is in the pipeline. Considering its proximity, it could become a preferred choice for countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia. As the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) comments, “This gives [Grand Nicobar] the potential to serve as an alternative transshipment facility in the region; a share of even five percent of the total shipping traffic in this area will be lucrative for India.”

To enhance the connectivity and prominence of the islands, New Delhi has entered into a number of international partnerships. The Thai government’s plan to connect its Ranong port with ANI could be an important development. In 2018, India and Indonesia under their “Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” established a special task force to develop connectivity between the port of Sabang and ANI.

India could also use the developing facilities at ANI for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Radhika Ajayan, a researcher on environmental security in the South Pacific, said, “From a climate security perspective, India’s use of smart power through Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) activities is appreciated worldwide, something that China has failed to do in the past and suffered [for] (its late response during 2013 Typhoon Haiyan).” She further added that most of the countries in Southeast Asia are part of the “ring of fire,” which makes them more susceptible to frequent natural disasters. A strong naval presence at ANI will make India a reliable partner during a crisis.

India’s Defense Push at ANI

When Modi inaugurated the first undersea optical fiber project at ANI, he also hinted at a 100 billion rupee investment plan for the islands. In North Andaman, a Naval Air Station (NAS) Shibpur was commissioned as INS Kohassa, and in Greater Nicobar at Campbell Bay INS Baaz, a naval air station, was upgraded into an aviation base. In his article, Chandramohan predicts that the ANI “could also be the base for elements of the Army’s Special Forces and Naval Commandos, the Marcos’, a SU-30 MKI all-weather fighter squadron and a maritime Jaguar squadron on a permanent basis.” India has already deployed long-range patrol aircraft including Poseidon-8I Neptune at its forward military base in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

The appointment of former chief of the Indian Navy Admiral D. K. Joshi as the lieutenant governor of the islands in October 2017 was a crucial development, allowing for a better understanding of the security, economic, and commercial potential and limitations in the development of the islands.

A naval warfare strategy of “sea denial” – denying the adversary the use of the near seas – is crucial to dictate terms in littoral space. ANI’s strategic location allows New Delhi to pursue this strategy in terms of maintaining its tactical stature at sea. With the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, the Andaman and Nicobar islands will continue to occupy center stage in India’s maritime strategy in the years and decades to come.