Over the past decade, the Chinese Navy’s surface ships and submarines have maintained a regular presence in the Indian Ocean.
In light of this, India has already set on the path of developing the military assets on the archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which sits on the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, a gateway to the South China Sea, a major choke point for the Chinese Navy.
But the island chain comprising 572 islands is also emerging as an important piece in countering China’s strategy for Indo-Pacific and West countries.
Earlier this month, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Destroyer Samidare (DD-106) berthed at Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar.
“JMSDF Samidare berths at Port Blair ANC. CO (Commanding Officer), JMSDF Samidare called on Air Marshal Sanju Balakrishnan, CINCAN (Commander-in-Chief Andaman and Nicobar). Warm camaraderie and cross-ship visits foster greater understanding and friendship amongst naval professionals,” the Andaman and Nicobar Command tweeted post the visit. Before this, French Frigate FNS Lorraine had come for a port call in the islands in July 2023.
During the visit, the Japanese naval personnel played football matches with their Indian counterparts and participated in yoga sessions. But the real import of the visit is the growing importance of islands, especially for the countries that form the four Indo-Pacific Quad countries—India, Japan, Australia, and the United States.
In 2020 India conducted a PASSEX (passing exercise) with the US carrier strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz at the peak of its confrontation with China on the eastern border. Called a “cooperative” exercise, the maritime drills between the warships of the two countries were a categoric display of their intent to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
Before the exercise with the US Navy, Indian and Japanese warships carried out a small exercise in the Malacca Strait in 2020. These two exercises paved the way for the first-ever Malabar maritime exercise between the Quad countries in the Bay of Bengal in 2020.
France has also been very keen on strengthening its maritime ties with India. Beginning in January 2020, its submarine hunter P-8Is have been conducting surveillance sorties in the Indian Ocean Region and want to increase interoperability with the Indian Navy to secure its territories in the region.
Geo-Strategic Importance Of Andaman & Nicobar Islands
Located at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are said to be one of the world’s most strategically located island chains.
The northernmost point of the 572 islands is only 22 nautical miles away from Myanmar, and its southernmost point is a mere 90 nautical miles from Indonesia. The islands control the Bay of Bengal, the Six Degree, and the Ten Degree channels, conduits to more than 60,000 commercial vessels.
The biggest advantage of the island chain located over 1200 kilometers away from mainland India is that it controls important choke points like the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Hence, India’s on a quest to strengthen its position in the archipelago and maintain a stable Indo-Pacific.
Signaling China’s growing presence, reports in January 2020 said that about 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 to 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.
The Quad countries and France have been working with India to develop Andamans and Nicobar to answer China’s increasing footprint in the surrounding waters. Chinese submarines coming to the Indian Ocean are forced to surface in Malacca Strait because it is narrow.
But there have been reports that India will be installing the Japan-US “fishhook” SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System, a chain of sensors designed to track submarines), creating a counter-wall against Chinese submarines loitering in the Andaman Sea and deep South China Sea.
It will be a crucial collaboration, as it is said that once up and running, Japan will share intelligence with the United Kingdom, Australia, and India.
“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,” a former Navy Chief Karambir Singh told the EurAsian Times.
Chinese shipbuilding capabilities have been legendary, churning out 80 warships in five years. Beijing’s advent toward the West is unlikely to halt. Singh said China looks west for its energy, markets, and resources, and hence “it won’t be surprising that soon they would be coming into the Indian Ocean Region” because “flag follows trade.”
Indian Military Push In Andaman & Nicobar Islands
In 2014, when Malaysian Airlines disappeared from the face of the earth, it highlighted the lackadaisical attitude India had towards the development of Andamans and Nicobar. The islands’ only radar station was at Port Blair, and it, too, was switched off every evening.
It is a far cry from the money India and its allies are pumping into developing the island chain. India already had two airports at Port Blair and Car Nicobar, and the Indian Navy is building a longer runway at Shibpur (commissioned as INS Kohassa) in the north.
The Campbell Bay (INS Baaz) runway in the south will be extended to 10,000 feet to support operations by larger aircraft. Another 10,000-foot runway is planned at Kamorta Island as part of the 10-year infrastructure development.
India has been deploying its Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Jaguar Maritime fighter jets in the islands. Its Poseidon submarine hunter P8-Is has also been operating from here. The military infrastructure development is to be able to deploy these assets permanently here. Andaman and Nicobar is so far the only tri-service command of India.
Former Indian Navy chief Admiral DK Joshi was appointed as the Lieutenant Governor of the islands in 2017 to push the security, economic, and commercial potential and limitations in the development of the islands.
The Andaman and Nicobar Command periodically conducts joint maritime exercises such as SIMBEX, the Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise. The Indian forces also conduct MILAN, the largest naval exercise in the region.
Besides military assets, India is also developing civil infrastructure in the islands. A trans-shipment hub planned in Campbell Bay will be located close to the Malacca Strait and the East-West shipping route connecting Europe and Africa with Asia.
Its proximity to Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia also gives it a further advantage. Most recently, India inaugurated the Chennai-Andaman and Nicobar undersea internet cable to provide a high-speed internet connection to seven remote islands chain.
Japan, which controlled these islands till World War II, understands the strategic importance of these isles. Considering only 37 islands out of 572 are inhabited, calls for beefing up security measures around the islands.
In 2022, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) decided to provide aid of up to 4,016,000,000 Japanese Yen (approximately US$133 million) for a power supply project in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI). Once completed by February 2024, this project will provide clean, renewable energy to the islands.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com