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How India is Playing its Indian Ocean Ace Card

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Asia Defense

How India is Playing its Indian Ocean Ace Card

A closer look at New Delhi’s renewed focus on the Andamans.

How India is Playing its Indian Ocean Ace Card
Credit: US Navy Photo

For an isolated outpost over 800 miles from India’s coast, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have made a surprising number of appearances in the Indian headlines the past two months.

In May, Prime Minister Modi Narendra Modi implored his countrymen to visit the Andamans and its colonial-era Cellular Jail in a “pilgrimage of our freedom struggle.” Two weeks prior, Delhi announced it had approved the construction of a new missile test facility on Rutland Island.

Is this yet another case of all smoke and no fire, continuing India’s longstanding tradition of neglect toward the former penal colony? Or is it a sign that Delhi has finally recognized the value of its strategic goldmine positioned at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca?

The establishment of a formal military command on the Andamans in 2001 was initially met with great fanfare. The Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) was billed as India’s first “tri-service” military command with rotating commanders from all three services. It was meant to serve as a model of “joint-ness” and a physical manifestation of India’s “Look East” policy. Yet, the announcement followed by a steady drumbeat of unfulfilled promises about upgrading the dilapidated civilian and military infrastructure on the islands. Night flights in the capital of Port Blair began only in 2015.

The Indian bureaucracy proved notoriously successful at stifling proposals intended for the ANC, including the construction of a new missile test facility on Rutland Island in the South Andamans. Concerned with the wellbeing of an endangered species of hornbill bird, the environment ministry stalled the initiative for years. On May 15, it finally caved. As the Economic Times notes, the new facility will be located at an “ideal distance” from mainland for ballistic missile tests:

As of now, long-range missile tests are being carried out from the Odisha coast and are tracked by naval vessels on a trajectory into the Bay of Bengal. Most of the long-range tests for missiles like Agni IV and V have to be tracked over sea, with specialized vessels noting the ‘hit zone’ into the water. DRDO [Defense Research and Development Organization] requires a land-based test area as well to accurately track its long-range missiles…

The Rutland Island announcement follows a gradual but material increase in the level of Indian interest and activity on the Andamans in recent years that can likely be attributed to two related factors: the election of Prime Minister Modi and the emergence of China as a significant military actor in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Not long after assuming office Prime Minister Modi launched a “Neighborhood First” initiative designed to buttress India’s strategic position in the IOR. This quickly manifest in a series of high-profile visits and military agreements with India’s island neighbors as well as a renewed commitment to resourcing the ANC. In 2015 Mr. Modi unveiled a ten-year, $1.5 billion infrastructure package for the Andamans, including a recommitment to double the number of naval patrol craft to 32 and army personnel to 6,000.

In January 2016, Delhi approved the rotational deployment of advanced, U.S.-origin P8-I Poseidon maritime surveillance patrol aircraft and Israeli-origin unmanned drones through the ANC. In March 2016 the ANC received new landing craft and interceptor boats from the Indian Coast Guard. In April 2016 India dispatched a guided-missile corvette, the INS Karmuk, to the Andamans in what appears to be the first permanent deployment of a major surface combatant to the command. Around the same time the Indian media reported Delhi and Tokyo had begun discussions to install a “sea wall of hydrophones” in the IOR which would assist in the tracking of foreign submarines.

Last month the Indian Navy announced its first indigenously-developed floating dock would be deployed to the ANC. Yet, arguably the most significant military upgrade underway at the ANC involves the expansion of a 3,500-meter runway at the Campbell Bay military base established in 2012 on the southernmost island of Great Nicobar.

Campbell Bay is over 300 miles closer to the mouth of the Strait of Malacca than the airfield at Port Blair and overlooks the Six Degree Channel, a high-traffic shipping lane connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Plans to expand the runway to 6,000, and eventually 10,000 feet, would permit the base to host a far wider range of air assets like the P8-I Poseidon and better monitor traffic transiting the naval chokepoint at the Strait of Malacca.

Indian analysts have begun speculating that the ANC could one day be transformed into a major regional shipping hub or upgraded to a major naval command capable of hosting aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and India’s frontline Sukhoi-30MKI fighters.

The second factor driving India’s renewed focus on the Andamans, and the catalyst for Modi’s plans there, is China and its growing military footprint in the IOR. After only limited forays in decades prior, in 2008 the People’s Liberation Army Navy began rotating a three-ship anti-piracy naval task naval force through the IOR for patrols off the Horn of Africa. Chinese nuclear and conventional submarine patrols followed in 2013 and 2014, making headlines with port calls to Karachi and Colombo.

In 2015, the pace of Chinese activities in the IOR quickened. Beijing established its first overseas ‘military logistics supply facility’ in Djibouti, assumed control of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, finalized plans to sell eight Yuan-class submarines to Pakistan, and announced the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In aggregate, these moves seized the attention and piqued the threat perceptions of India’s military planners, reviving longstanding concerns about China’s so-called “string of pearls” and refocusing India’s attention on the ANC.

After the tragic disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370 in 2014, Delhi denied a request by Beijing to send a naval convoy into the Andamans’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to search for the missing aircraft. When two Chinese vessels entered the Andamans’ EEZ that month, they were “intercepted” by the Indian Coast Guard and asked to leave. Indian military officials have since revealed to the press that Chinese warships “attempt to get close [to the Andamans] at least twice every three months.”

Meanwhile, at a think tank forum in Delhi in mid-2016, a Chinese ambassador ominously declared that “someone in the future may dispute the ownership of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.” The account was conveyed by Vice Admiral Arun Singh, the former head of India’s Eastern Naval Command, who was present at the meeting. He warns that at “some future date of its choosing, the Chinese government is quite capable of producing a ‘new, just-found 700-year-old document’ that would purport to show that Admiral Zheng He had visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in support of China’s claims to these islands.”

The low-level rivalry that’s kept China-India relations at a steady simmer since the 1962 border war has been intensifying in recent years. It’s the product of several factors including persistent tensions over legacy disputes like China’s patronage toward Pakistan, India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama, and two countries’ outstanding border dispute. Yet, the substantial growth in China’s presence and influence on both the subcontinent and in the Indian Ocean over the past decade has added a new, more volatile layer of friction to the cold peace governing bilateral relations. After losing several hands to Beijing in its own backyard, Prime Minister Modi is positioning to play India’s ace card in the Indian Ocean.