Andaman and Nicobar Islands in light of Chinese actions in South China Sea
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been part of India since the Cholas and Marathas period.[i] Rajendra Chola used Andaman and Nicobar Islands to wage wars against Sri Wijaya Empire in Sumatra. In the 17th century, this was used as a Maratha base by the Maratha Admiral Kanhoji Angre who fought valiantly against the British and the Dutch. The Indian Navy has named one of the naval bases as ‘Angre’ on the Western sea board to honour the Maratha Admiral. The credit for making these islands as part of Indian land mass too has been attributed to Admiral Angre.
The verdict of The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) rejecting China’s ownership claim on South China Sea has actually made China adopt an accommodating attitude towards some of its neighbours to gain their support, so that any change in the status quo in South China Sea does not become detrimental to the long term plans of China to establish its claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea to uphold its illegitimate claims based on historicity. As a result of this, China very pro actively took up the issue of unresolved border dispute between India and China. According to Chinese officials, some accommodation could be made on the McMahon line if India supported the claims of China in South China Sea.[ii]
However, on 19th April 2016, China’s officiating Ambassador at a discussion about South China Sea in New Delhi, during deliberations between various Think Tanks commented that “Someone in future may dispute the ownership of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands”.[iii]
Although no available input on India’s official response to such unofficial claim by China are available, it seems that China by bringing up the question of Andaman and Nicobar Islands may be trying to pressurize India to support China on their claims for South China Sea. As a matter of fact, there are no historical records to show Chinese presence in A&N ever before; except seven voyages (1405-1433) to the Indian Ocean region by the legendary Chinese admiral Zheng, who on his death in 1433 was accorded a sea burial off the coast of Kozhikode in India. Admiral Zheng is supposed to have opened the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) by cruising through the Malacca Straits, coming to Thailand, Sri Lanka, Kerala, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.[iv]
At some future date of its own choosing, the Chinese government may be likely to be producing a “new, just-found 700-year-old document” that may imply to demonstrate that Admiral Zheng during his voyage had also visited Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in support of China’s claims to these islands.
With the changing maritime dynamics in South China Sea and also the Indian Ocean Region, the importance of Andaman and Nicobar Islands to India cannot be overemphasized. Pacific and the Indian Oceans are connected through the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that lie in this deliberately critical zone, implying that India with its developing maritime abilities could assume a noteworthy position in controlling access to Malacca Straits and China is worried about its vulnerability through the Malacca Straits into the Indian Ocean Region since it passes through the ever watchful eyes of the Indian Tri Services command in Port Blair. Therefore China considers this geographically favourable position of India as a thorn to its Indian Ocean aspirations. According to Yoshihara, the location of these islands allows India to play into China’s psyche by creating an Indian version of the Western Pacific’s first-island chain. India’s Navy chief, Admiral R K Dhowan had acknowledged that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a “very very important aspect” of India’s security calculus, acting as extended arms of the country.[v]
Soon after coming to power, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had cleared a decade old proposal to set up a radar station on an island lying a couple of miles from Coco Islands, which Myanmar has rented to China with the main aim of setting up a listening post. Reportedly, infrastructure development on Coco Islands was finished in a very short time; in addition Chinese have also made an airstrip there. But India on the other hand took ten years to fabricate a radar station on the adjacent Narcondam Islands.[vi]
Plans to improve the infrastructure are welcomed but Modi’s government needs to recognize the key significance of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and push an impassive bureaucracy to hasten decision-making. India needs to use these islands to project power into the region and signal China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy about its readiness to counter any intervention.
Modi has a chance to make Andaman and Nicobar Islands an important component of his “Act East Policy” by drawing in other nations in the region. However, in the recent past, the Indian government has been accused of being lethargic even after having declared its intention of beefing up the security infrastructure on these islands. An unified land, sea and air command was created more than a decade ago, but the command still faces turf wars, funding issues, and glacial decision making process.[vii]
The failure of India’s civilian bureaucracy to perceive the geostrategic significance of the islands is obvious in a way that the main radar station at Port Blair is turned off each night. At a time when the Malaysian government looked for data about the missing MH370 from India there was no data for sharing.[viii]
Post verdict of the PCA, China seems to have taken all possible measures to tighten its claim on South China Sea. Offering India to resolve the long-standing border dispute in exchange for India’s support to China on South China Sea can be seen as one such move. Bringing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands ownership question through discussion between India and China’s think tanks could be taken as an India’s wake-up call on Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India should firmly reject this audacious assumption that someday in the future the ownership of Andaman and Nicobar Islands could be contested. It is time to realize the importance of A&N and strengthen its Tri Services Command in Port Blair. India also needs to engage the ASEAN in general and Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia in particular (due to the close proximity to A&N Islands) more vigorously to synergies the efforts in the Andaman Sea and in the Malacca Straits for both peace time operations and for contingencies.
[i] Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd): Devious Plans of China to bring in the issue of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, July 21, 2016; Dr. Subhash Kapil: India Needs to Fast-Track Securing Andaman and Nicobar Islands against China’s Covetous Designs
[iii] Watch China, it may be eyeing Andamans, The Asian Age, July13, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/watch-china-it-may-be-eyeing-andamans-263
[v] Supra note 1.
[vi] The Strategic importance of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, The Diplomat January 3,2016
[vii] Andaman and Nicobar Islands: India’s Strategic Outpost, The Diplomat March 18,2014
[viii] Supra note 7