News about the decision for India to permanently station fighter jets in the Andaman & Nicobar Group of Islands (ANI) is a welcome move, something that should have happened years back. Deployment of frontline fighter jets is under consideration for deployment at two bases in ANI – one each at Car Nicobar and at Campbell Bay. IAF already has a base at Car Nicobar but ANI has only one Mi-17V5 unit and two Dornier aircraft permanently stationed. The Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) was established on the ANI in 2001 in accordance recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and the follow up Group of Ministers (GoM) reports. But the ANC really doesn’t have much teeth must keep looking over its shoulder at mainland India.
The ANI stretches 467 km from its northern tip to the southern tip covering some 572 islands. One look at the map would tell you that the geography of ANI is so strategically endowed that it is bang in the centre of the western opening of the Malacca Straits connecting Indian Ocean to the South China Sea (SCS) and Pacific Ocean. ANI is also proximate to the Straits of Sunda, Lumbok and Ombai Wetar (Indonesia). Malacca Straits are strategically most important due to shorter sea journey and because Sunda Straits, though wider than Malacca, are shallower along the eastern end with sandbanks, strong tidal flow and offshore oil platforms off Java making navigation difficult. As for Lombok, it has least width of about 20 Km but depth of 250 m suitable for big ships, even though the travel time is longer.
The ANC importantly also provides security cover to India’s 5.95 lakh sq km exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the region. Significantly, India has no maritime boundary disputes with any county of Southeast Asia. Taking cue from China’s militarization of the SCS, we should have taken steps to optimize the strategic advantage of ANI much before, but as the say ‘Der Aaye, Durust Aaye’. Yet, there is much more that needs to be done. 97% of India’s trade is by sea and if India is to fulfill its role as net security provider in the region, then the ANC must have teeth to match its tasks.
China has been making no bones about her ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and using that pretext for aggressive presence of the PLA Navy (PLAN) in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). PLAN forays in IOR have increased aggressively in recent years; warships, latest Luyang-III class guided-missile destroyers, nuclear submarines, intelligence gathering vessels, hydrographic research vessels, deep sea explorers etc. At times, movement of Chinese subs have also been reported close to ANI. China is going ahead with establishing some 18 naval bases in the IOR including India’s immediate neighbourhood under the euphuism of ‘strategic support bases’, and has intensified naval activity with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Gwadar Port together with upcoming PLA base in Jiwani would give China control of entire Pakistani coastline. Hambantota is already leased by Sri Lanka to China for 99 years. China has obtained a Maldivian island close to Male airport on lease for 50 years. Coco Islands off the northern tip of ANI has long been suspected of having been leased to China by Mtanmar has an airstrip and a listening post to monitor Indian missile tests and activities in the Bay of Bengal.
A PLAN task force had to turn turtle from Maldives recently because of Indian naval deployment. More recently, Indian Navy messaged China it will keep an eye over the region by tweeting pictures of Chinese warships entering the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The ANI is actually, a gigantic natural aircraft carrier – God’s gift to India. It must be, therefore, developed as such. Giving historic perspective of India’s foreign policy at Singapore to an international audience last year during a workshop organized by India Foundation, MJ Akbar, MoS (EAM) had said, “India is the western frontier of peace, and the eastern frontier of war”. In keeping with this, ANI must be developed into a ‘spring board’ to meet the challenges of the Indo-Pacific that are increasing by the day with an overtly aggressive China. As such, ANI must have requisite weapon systems and adequate ‘power projection’ capabilities. In the same context, ANI must have deployment of submarines also. The Defence Minister must also seriously look at the case for raising a Marine Brigade by the Indian Navy that has been lying in MoD past two decades.
Inaugurating a four day naval conclave at New Delhi (May 8-11, 2018) to discuss naval efficiency and combat readiness, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman observed that the Indian Navy has emerged as a “dependable partner” for Indian Ocean Region littoral navies, adding “India and the Indian Navy have emerged as the first port of call and a dependable partner for (Indian Ocean Region) IOR littoral navies to address their maritime security needs”. The conclave was being held to review the Navy’s new mission-based deployments philosophy aimed at ensuring peace and stability in the region”. There was no mention in the conclave
about China creating military and strategic assets in India’s close neighbourhood like in Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives and Sri Lanka who have all signed up to Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Post the inaugural address, Sitharaman parried a question from reporters on Chinese ubiquitous presence in the region including a deep-sea port at Gwadar in Pakistan and the establishment of a naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Boosting the defence potential of ANI should not be lost sight of because of Chinese vibes during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s informal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan recently, given not only China’s past record but also that there are no permanent friends and enemies. Chinese mischief is historical and in this context the Officiating Chinese Ambassador to India made a Machiavellian remark on April 19, 2016 at New Delhi when some of the think tanks were invited to participate in the discussion about SCS that “Someone in future may dispute the ownership of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands” (http://www.eurasiareview.com/26072016-devious-plans-of-china-to-bring-in-issue-of-andaman-and-nicobar-islands-ownership-analysis/). Also, while the ANI, with its proximity to the Malacca Straits, straddles the major global sea routes, none of its 572 islands have a port which is part of international trade. Developing Port Blair or another port into such facility would give added strategic advantage to India and to the region. Additionally, India must optimize its other island territories including Lakshadweep and Minicoy similarly.
In the above context, India must also look beyond banking only on the Indo-US Strategic Partnership. For whatever reasons, India denying Australia inclusion in the Malabar 2018 exercise somehow gives impression we have got overawed at Wuhan, whether Australia wanted participation as observer or not, something that could have been discussed. By denying Australian participation, what signal are we giving to the ‘Quad’? French President Macron visiting Australia said on May 2, 2018, “If we want to be seen and respected by China as an equal partner, we must organize ourselves… This new Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis is absolutely key for the region and our joint objectives in the India-Pacific region.” During his recent visit to India, Macron did give the impression, France is not interested to join the ‘Quad’, but by mentioning the new Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis, he is signaling another strategic partnership, which actually needs to be viewed as an adjunct to the ‘Quad’. And, geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific can best be dealt through multiple strategic partnerships.