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.