Two weeks after he was killed on North Sentinel Island in India’s Andaman Islands, the story of John Allen Chau, a Chinese-American post-millennial neomissionary, continues to beguile and bother.
Even as the narrative of his death is being rewritten by interested parties everywhere—with even the far-right Australian One Nation leader Pauline Hanson referring approvingly to the “strict zero-gross immigration policy” of the Stone-Age Sentinelese—Chau’s undercover incursion has played havoc with India’s coastal security concerns.
A tug-of-war of conflicting priorities is currently underway between the Union home ministry, which in August 2018 eased the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) on 29 Islands in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands (AN&I) in the interests of expanding deep-water tourism, and the Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC), which wants the RAP reimposed on certain islands it thinks should be left isolated and unvisited in the interests of India’s security. (The ANC is the only tri-service command in India and, despite functioning largely as a logistical facility for the Eastern Naval Command, is possibly the most stringently administered of India’s commands).
Surprisingly, the Indian government lifted the RAP in August 2018, little more than a month after it convened a coastal securitization meeting in June 2018. In July 2018, during his annual press conference, Indian Navy chief Admiral RK Dhowan had spoken of beefing up the “strategically important” Andaman and Nicobar Islands because they “overlook the entire sea lines of communication and choke lines” [in the region]. This self-affirmatory press conference was held two months after India hosted a major naval exercise in March 2018 involving the navies of 16 littoral nations under the aegis of the ANC.
The mid-year coastal-security meeting was convened by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, with the chief ministers of the nine coastal states and four Union Territories to discuss the strengthening onshore and offshore security. In the event, while the decision had been taken to heighten maritime security in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal, and the Union Territories of Daman and Diu, Lakshadweep, and Puducherry, the Andamans—by far the most important in terms of coastal security and because they comprise 26 percent of the total length of the Indian coastline—were oddly downgraded, indirectly leaving vulnerable the Sentinelese.
Of the 29 islands where the RAP has been lifted, 12 are inhabited by Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs): nine in the Nicobar group and three in the Andamans archipelago. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Chau targeted and made landfall on the only island among the lot—in fact, in the entire 572-island Andaman and Nicobar chain—that happens to be inhabited by an uncontacted tribe: North Sentinel. The Andamans group alone has 325 islands, and a single one couldn’t be that high-value. Or could it? What would explain the ongoing international hullabaloo and the internal security hubbub?
As things stand, it is clear that Chau successfully circumvented the security protocols of two heavyweights: the local Coast Guard and the tri-command. It should not have been possible for Chau to dodge both the Coast Guard stations in Middle and South Andaman and regular air scrutiny from the naval airbase INS Utkrosh at Port Blair. That he did, making his crossing at night in a motorized minitrawler, its lights extinguished in defiance of security norms, has the tricommand astir. More to the point, it has the Indian Navy in a fix vis-à-vis the two other forces. In April-May 2018, the powers of the Commander-in-Chief of Andaman and Nicobar Command (CINCAN), a three-star naval officer, were further consolidated by the government. The Navy’s tricommand leadership, which is rotated among the three forces, was extended further in July 2018, when it was supposed to have ended. Whether or not the appointment in October 2017 of Admiral DK Joshi, the former chief of the Indian Navy, as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands lieutenant governor contributed in any way to the RAP mess is a question that the tricommand is today asking itself.
Chau reportedly took a boat from Karmatang in Middle Andaman to North Sentinel – a distance southwestwards of some 81 miles, almost every inch of it so tightly patrolled that few resident Andamanese dare venture that way. But Chau managed to reach the island by the simple expedient of paying the fishermen about $325 (for an eight-hour round-trip in the dark). It was thrice the Andamans per capita income of $121 per month (as on 31 March 2017), and a fair sum by even Andamanese standards used to tourists flashing money. It was that easy.
Complicating the issue is that four of the five fishermen who took Chau to North Sentinel are of Burmese Karen origin. As the authorities see it, that they are also (Protestant) Christian makes them prima facie complicit in Chau’s evangelical intent and more than mere transport providers. To them, this religious confluence also explains why Chau’s family have asked for “the release of those friends he had in the Andaman Islands.”
The Andamans’ Karen people comprise just a half-percent of the population of the archipelago, but carry an inordinately heavy reputational burden as illegal loggers and smugglers. Despite the fact that since 2005, they have some jobs reserved for them in the administration—the official granting of Indian citizenship marking an uptick in India-Burma relations rather than any consideration of local domicile of more than eight decades—they continue to be generally distrusted by and isolated from the general population. The Andamans’ Karen are contained in eight villages in Middle Andaman, squished between the intensely securitized South and North Andaman but clever enough, apparently, to smuggle out felled logs in the form of dugouts. In short, the Andamans administration saw the Karen as security risks even prior to the incident under investigation.
There is soul-searching underway in the ANC about the nature of the standard-operating-procedure infraction or lacuna that allowed Chau’s boat to cross the India-facing, zoned-off side of the Andamans without being hailed by either patrol boats or being spotted by the Coastal Surveillance Radar (CSR) stations that dot the Andamans’ 1,226 km-long coastline and feed continuous data to the Coast Guard’s Remote Operating Centres (ROC).
North Sentinel, an amoeba-shaped, 23-square-mile island with a narrow fringe of beach beaten by perennially choppy waters, is located barely 25 miles off southwestern coastline of South Andaman and northwest of the world’s busiest shipping lane, the Malacca Strait. Its location might be considered more geostrategically significant than the United States’ Indian Ocean holdfast of Diego Garcia, primarily because of its location near the Indian Ocean maritime highway (along which 120,000 ships move every year on average), and its relative proximity to the Malacca Strait, a passageway for 70,000 ships.
India’s current security narrative seems to be underplaying the fact that Great Nicobar in the Nicobar group of islands is more strategically placed than North Sentinel. The Malacca Strait is 431 miles from Great Nicobar and 648 miles from North Sentinel and, thus, a third closer to the Nicobar group than to North Sentinel.
But the Nicobar group of islands is tectonically vulnerable, which is why the Air Force presence is limited to Car Nicobar island and naval air presence to Great Nicobar island. Both are insufficient to maintain reasonable scrutiny over the northern gateway of the Malacca Strait.
What makes North Sentinel invaluable is its location on the cusp of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, a region that India is very possessive about as being part of its southeast frontier. Second, the 625-mile-long western coastline of the Andamans is almost entirely occupied by Indian Navy port and docking facilities. Third, North Sentinel falls well inside India’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
Darshana Baruah, an associate director and senior research analyst with Carnegie India, wrote that despite India’s current supremacy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), “China is beginning to address its weaknesses in the Indian Ocean, such as by starting to forward deploy with its base in Djibouti. Beijing is building a series of commercial ports in the Indian Ocean that boost its strategic presence in the region. These ports – strategically located in Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives – could eventually serve a military purpose.”
North Sentinel stands 1,056 miles from the Malacca Strait, which China’s Peoples Liberation Army Navy once rated as strategically crucial as Taiwan less than a decade ago. Today, with the heightening of geopolitical ambitions and tensions following the networking inauguration of China’s Maritime Silk Road, the Malacca Strait has gained exponentially in importance. (In October 2018, after exactly a year in hiatus, China redeployed a diesel-electric attack submarine to patrol the Indian Ocean Region.)
John Allen Chau’s Chinese origin appears to be rankling some Indian analysts that see any China connection at all in a less-than-kindly light. The geostrategist Brahma Chellaney noted in an analysis that “Chau, instead of applying for a missionary visa, abused India’s e-visa-on-arrival system for tourists by hiding his real purpose. He neither registered with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office nor sought the mandatory permission under the separate aborigine and forest protection laws before undertaking a mission he plotted through previous A&N visits. Yet, in isolated but militarily sensitive Andaman, no agency spotted the Chinese-looking American, although Chinese and Pakistanis need MHA’s clearance to be there.”
Appalling as the idea is that anyone “Chinese-looking” should automatically attract the attention of security profilers—Chau’s parents immigrated to the United States and converted to Christianity—it is nevertheless indisputable that his breaking of a simple law governing sovereign access seems to have reduced India’s security apparatus and interior ministry to a state of mutual acrimony and anxiety.