India’s military build-up, particularly of its naval capabilities and naval installations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, worried ASEAN policy makers, who saw India as a potential threat to regional security. India’s relations with ASEAN however, improved in the 1990s as the result of the end of the bipolar world system and the UN-brokered peace settlement in Cambodia. For its part, New Delhi sought to boost economic and trade ties with the region and to establish closer political and defence ties in order to counteract China’s growing influence in South East Asia. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have immense strategic value and it could be used as a centre point for India’s “Look East” policy.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a group of islands at the junction of Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, is a Union Territory of India. The Islands comprise two groups, the Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands, separated by the 10° N parallel, with the Andamans to the North of this latitude and Nicobar to the South. Of the 572 islands, only 37 are inhabited.
Organised colonisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by the Europeans began in December 1755…
Rajendra Chola I (1014 to 1042), one of the Tamil Chola dynasty kings, occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to use them as a strategic naval base to launch a naval expedition against the Sriwijaya Empire, a Hindu-Malay empire based in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Islands also provided a temporary maritime base for Maratha ships in the 17th century. The legendary Admiral Kanhoji Angre who established naval supremacy with a base there, is credited with making the Islands a part of India.
Organised colonisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by the Europeans began in December 1755 with the arrival of Danish settlers who declared them to be a Danish colony, first named New Denmark and later Frederick’s Islands. During the period 1754 to 1756, they were administrated from Tranquebar in continental Danish India. The colony was repeatedly abandoned due to the outbreak of malaria from 1759 onwards for varying periods of time and finally in 1848, for good. During these periods of abandonment between 1778 and 1784, Austria mistakenly assumed that Denmark had abandoned its claims to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and attempted to establish a colony there, renaming them as Theresia Islands. In 1789, the British set up a naval base and a penal colony on Chatham Island next to Great Andaman, where now exists the town of Port Blair. Two years later, the colony was moved to Port Cornwallis on Great Andaman, but was soon abandoned due to disease.
The British re-established a colony at Port Blair in 1858 which proved to be more permanent. Denmark’s presence in the territory formally ended when it sold the rights to the Islands to Britain. Thus, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands became a part of British India in 1869. The primary purpose was to set up a penal colony for dissenters and those fighting for India’s freedom. Thus was built the infamous Cellular Jail that today is a major tourist attraction. In 1872, the British strengthened their administrative control over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by uniting them under a single Chief Commissioner at Port Blair.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands became a part of British India in 1869…
World War II
During World War II, the islands were practically under Japanese control, only nominally under the authority of the Indian National Army (INA) Azad Hind Fauj of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Netaji visited the islands during the years of the War and renamed them as ‘Shaheed Dweep’ (Martyr Island) and ‘Swaraj Dweep’ (Self-rule Island). The Islands were re-occupied by British and Indian troops in October 1945 to whom the remaining Japanese garrison surrendered. Evidence of British and Japanese occupation by way of pill-boxes and other buildings exists even today.
At independence of both India (1947) and Burma (1948) (now Myanmar), the departing British announced their intention to resettle all Anglo-Indians and Anglo-Burmese on the Islands to form their own nation, although this never materialised. The Islands became a part of the Indian Union in 1950 and were declared a Union Territory in 1956.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands have a unique location in the Bay of Bengal. The Islands are closer to a number of countries than the Indian mainland. Due North, they are just 22 nautical miles from Myanmar. At the southern end, Indira Point, the southernmost point of India, earlier known as Pygmalion Point, is just 90 nautical miles from Indonesia. In the East, Thailand is only 270 nautical miles away. In stark contrast to these distances, Port Blair is over 750 nautical miles from mainland India. The North to South spread of the islands facilitates domination of the Bay of Bengal, the Six and Ten Degree Channels and also parts of the Indian Ocean. Apart from their location, these Islands also have an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 300,000 sq. km. Thus, any country controlling these Islands would be able to control the Bay of Bengal. Due to their proximity to South East Asian countries, these Islands can serve as a bridgehead for any country wishing to either attack mainland India or carry out subversive activities.
India and the Indian Ocean
Being the largest nation in the area, India plays an important role in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Apart from being strategically located, India has a vast coastline with the peninsula jutting out 1,200 miles into the ocean. It is also one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The EEZ of India has great potential for mining of undersea resources so crucial to the economy of the nation. With many important Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) passing through the area, this region is of immense economic and strategic significance to India as also to other nations. SLOC are the critical lifelines to East Asia’s trade and energy requirements.
The US has continuously displayed interest in the region with a significant naval presence deployed all year round and maintains a permanent airbase at Diego Garcia. However, of late, China too has been showing an increasing interest in the IOR. Strategically however, India is in an advantageous position. Apart from the important position in this region, the chain of Islands also shares maritime borders with countries namely Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. With such contiguous maritime borders, come major challenges of border management. Fortunately for India, relations today with all South and South East Asian nations are more cordial than they have ever been. Hence, the current threat level from the immediate neighbours, as far as these Islands are concerned, is minimal. Challenges however, do exist and ought not to be ignored.
The placid waters of the Andaman Sea belie the 24×7 threat perception that churns these waters literally on a daily basis. A war in the conventional sense might be a remote possibility, but that does not mean that the Indian Armed Forces do not prepare for any eventuality. Threat perceptions take into account a battle for the control of these waters.
Threat perceptions take into account a battle for the control of these waters…
While on the one hand, the Island territories make for an extremely useful Indian listening post for the larger IOR, the distance of these islands from the mainland, represents their biggest insecurity, making them vulnerable to conventional and non-conventional threats. There is no reason to believe that forces inimical to Indian interests and sovereignty do not have designs on these Islands, to spy on them and the many sensitive installations they house. In August 2011, a Chinese vessel camouflaged as a fishing trawler was spotted by the Indian Navy just off the Andaman Islands. Indian authorities concluded that the mysterious visitor was on a spy mission and was most likely being commanded by personnel of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) intelligence units. Grave uncertainties surrounding China’s maritime intentions in the Indian Ocean have prompted a singularly focused effort on the part of India to beef up forces deployed in defence of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has to do with more than just sovereignty. The Indian Navy’s endless watch is not just about protecting territories. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands straddle the busiest trade routes in the world and the onus of keeping them safe and sanitised, is one of the chief responsibilities of the Indian Navy. But the irony of the situation is that international waters around these territories have to be kept safe in coordination with navies of other nations, including China’s, an undoubted maritime adversary. Considering just how much energy security matters to both India and China, securing the sea lanes of communication is a fierce struggle, one where confrontation is always just a whisker away. The passage of billions of dollars worth of trade does not discount the threat of piracy in the Bay of Bengal and the adjoining straits, one that the Indian Navy has become all too familiar with, in the Arabian Sea.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands face greater challenges to their internal security through non-conventional threats such as illegal migration from littoral states of the Bay of Bengal, poaching of marine and forest resources, arms and narcotics smuggling through uninhabited islands and natural disasters. In recent years, several such attempts and instances have created a sense of insecurity in the area. These externally sponsored security threats have now for long raised serious issues both in terms of determinable losses to life and property and non-quantifiable losses to national will and drain on scarce economic resources.
In an incident in the not-so-distant past, more than four hundred illegal migrants departed from Chittagong in six mechanised boats to enter Malaysia. The boats were intercepted and detained on the high seas by the Royal Thai Navy for about four weeks for preliminary investigations. Subsequently, the illegal migrants were transferred to a non-mechanised boat with some bags of rice and released on the high seas off the coast of Thailand. Just over a hundred survivors of Bangladesh and Myanmar origin reached Little Andaman coast after twelve days. The question of dealing with such illegal migrants has no easy answers, particularly if political parties provide support for consolidating their respective vote banks for short-term gains, while fully realising the long-term implications of demographic changes in the territory.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands face greater challenges to their internal security through non-conventional threats…
The major role of the Indian armed forces stationed in Andaman and Nicobar Islands is to protect from poachers the resources in the EEZ, a vast area of 5,95,217 sq km, roughly 30 per cent of the total EEZ of the country. There are two basic types of poaching activities prevailing in the region. First, poachers from neighbouring countries who venture into the Andaman Sea in small boats for collecting sea-cucumbers, timber, and fishing; second, intrusion of modern mechanised trawlers of littoral countries which are actively involved in drug-smuggling and gun-running. Poaching, if unchecked, could lead to depletion of fish stock and create an ecological imbalance, while drugs and gun-running have their attendant security implications so well known that they need not be amplified. The entry of illegal immigrants in the tribal reserves is another major concern leading to strong discontent, especially among the tribal population of southern Nicobar Islands. Visitors from littoral countries often come to these remote islands, under the pretext of tourism, to scout for and exploit resources meant for the tribals. Such contact in the past has often led to devastating epidemics and on occasions, even violent conflict.
The Way Ahead
That the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are of immense strategic importance to India has now been accepted by the government. Efforts to safeguard the Eastern seaboard as well monitor the international sea-lanes passing in close proximity of the Islands, have been underway for some time now, but not at the pace that is desired for such an important issue. India needs to plug the gaps in the coastal security, air defence and surveillance.
India needs to participate actively in shaping the region’s economic and security architecture with the active participation of all littoral states…
In view of the presence of an assertive China on the Coco Islands of Myanmar in close proximity of Northern Andaman, India has strengthened her military presence and has upgraded the tri-Services Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). However, a lot more needs to be done in terms of improvement in infrastructure and induction of modern equipment. China does not just have a listening post on the Coco Islands but is reported to be also building other military infrastructure including an airfield. A balance has to be struck between the needs of security and preservation of ecology. In a recent case, a proposed site for a radar was not approved as it would have impinged on the habitat of the rare ‘Hornbill’! Similarly, a naval-missile firing range was not cleared by the Ministry of Environment to protect the habitat of another rare bird!
Considering the strategic location of the islands, India needs to grow out of its earlier thinking of using them as a ‘listening-post’ or an ‘outpost’. Instead, there is a need to develop the islands as a hub or a ‘spring board’ for power projection in the region. Globalisation of the economy and trade has led to the increased use of the sea by China and India. China’s oil supplies and trade with South East Asia, Africa and the West, have to perforce pass through the Strait of Malacca, leaving them vulnerable and faced with the dilemma of protecting the sea trade routes. India needs to participate actively in shaping the region’s economic and security architecture, not just by itself, but with the active participation of all littoral and affected states which would include China.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands need to be developed into a viable security and economic asset of the nation, thus integrating them with the mainstream. Utilisation of their proximity to major trade and shipping centres of the region such as Singapore which is only 950 kms from Port Blair and Yangon and Phuket, that are about 400 kms, should be given priority. Enhancing economic engagement with the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is another way of accelerating the development of the Islands. This would also allay any fears that these nations may have with any increased military activity by India in the area.
India may not possess the same economic and military clout as China does…
Keeping in view the rising threat of low intensity conflict at sea, what actually needs to be enhanced is the reconnaissance capability coupled with better intelligence gathering assets so that both the airspace and the sea are kept under constant surveillance. Sufficient airlift and sealift capabilities and means of rapidly deploying an amphibious force are also needed. The ANC is now more than a decade old and while its role was enhanced considerably compared to that of the earlier Naval Base, the force levels have not changed much from those of the 1990s. Development of infrastructure and new acquisitions to match the role has to be accorded due priority.
India’s military build-up, particularly of its naval capabilities and naval installations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, worried ASEAN policy makers, who saw India as a potential threat to regional security. India’s relations with ASEAN however, improved in the 1990s as the result of the end of the bipolar world and the UN-brokered peace settlement in Cambodia. For its part, New Delhi sought to boost economic and trade ties with the region and to establish closer political and defence ties in order to counteract China’s growing influence in South East Asia. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have immense strategic value and it could be used as a centre point for India’s “Look East” policy. This would also facilitate building political trust and reinforcing economic ties. Diplomacy and confidence-building would foster security bonds with the maritime neighbours to jointly combat common threats including illegal immigration that emanate from littoral countries. India needs to aggressively pursue its relations with all the nations of the region including China, not just for economic and trade ties, but also for multi-nation naval cooperation.
The way ahead logically is development, but it is a tall order, considering the dynamics of the process.
India may not possess the same economic and military clout as China does, but it has more global credibility due to its being a democracy and a votary for international peace. This and the fact that China has of late, been quite aggressive in laying its claim to the South China Sea and the disputed islands off the Japanese coast, has provided a positive tilt towards India. It should, therefore, take full advantage of the current situation, making friends and foes realise that no regional arrangement can have any standing without India’s active participation. Towards this end, India should not only develop the security infrastructure in these islands, but also exploit the potential of the Islands as significant trade, shipping and tourist hubs. With such valuable economic assets, the surrounding nations would be only too willing to cooperate to secure the Islands and the seas around them.
The way ahead logically is development, but considering the dynamics of the process, it is a tall order. Development has to be balanced with the security challenges, which in turn have to be matched with the local and ethnic environment. Notwithstanding these considerations, the Islands are the show-window of our intentions and power projection, including soft-power. There should be an urgency to give a boost to India’s “Look East” policy by asserting itself in the immediate maritime littorals with an aim to cover the entire ASEAN arc. The sooner, the better.
- “Coast Guard looks for alternative site for radars in Andaman & Nicobar Islands”, Economic Times, 24 Oct 2012.
- Pushpita Das, “Securing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands”, IDSA Journal, Vol 35/Issue 3, May 2011.
- Patrick Bratton, “The Creation of Indian Integrated Commands: Organisational Learning and Andaman and Nicobar Command”, IDSA Journal, Vol 36/Issue 3, May 2012.
- Notes made by the Author in a Seminar conducted by Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), titled “Threat Perception and Geo-Strategic Importance of A&N Islands” in August 2010.