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India’s Act East Gateway: The Andaman and Nicobar Islands

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India’s Act East Gateway: The Andaman and Nicobar Islands

After a slow start, New Delhi is finally realizing the islands’ crucial role in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

India’s Act East Gateway: The Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Credit: Depositphotos

India’s “Look East” policy was launched in 1991 by then-Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to increase cooperation with the Southeast Asian nations. The term “Act East” got significant attention when then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her visit to India in 2011, encouraged the Indian government to “not just to look east, but to engage east and act east.” Finally, in 2014 the Look East policy was updated to the Act East policy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ASEAN Summit held in Myanmar’s capital.

This successor of the Look East policy focuses more comprehensively on the extended neighborhood in the Indo-Pacific region. The Act East policy was conceived as an economic initiative toward ASEAN nations, but it has since grown to include the Indo-Pacific region’s political, strategic, and cultural aspects. The primary goals of this policy are to increase economic cooperation and connectivity, but also to develop strategic relationships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

India’s northeastern states play a vital role in this policy because these states are the gateway to Southeast Asian countries. However, it must be noted that India has one more gateway to the Indo-Pacific region.

Like the northeastern states, the proximal location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is vital for the Act East policy. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have the potential to fulfill all the primary objectives of the Act East policy, and can become the pivot for India’s maritime policy in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, the islands were ignored and their strategic capabilities were undermined for a long period. In recent years, however, the Indian government has been working to harness the capacities of the archipelago.

Although the capabilities of these islands are enormous, it will be most helpful for advancing India’s Act East policy. Recognizing this fact, Modi, while inaugurating the optical fiber cable project for the Andaman and Nicobar islands, declared, “Under the Act East policy, Andaman and Nicobar’s role in India’s strong relations with East Asian countries and other countries associated with the sea is crucial and it is going to increase.”

Economic Potential

One of the major objectives of the Act East policy is economic cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries, and the location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a boon for the prospects of economic integration. The island chain is located very near Indonesia and the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest and most important maritime trade routes in the world. The strait provides the shortest shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands connect South Asia with Southeast Asia; the northernmost point of the island group is only 22 nautical miles from Myanmar, and the southernmost point is only 90 nautical miles from the Indonesian archipelago. The archipelago rules over the Bay of Bengal and the Six Degree and Ten Degree Channels, through which more than 60,000 commercial ships pass each year.

The economic significance of this island group is vast. The archipelago accounts for 30 percent of the total Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of India, and the region is filled with  marine species that are in high demand as seafood and for many other uses.

Proper infrastructure building and increasing connectivity within and outside the Andaman and Nicobar Islands can make this an attractive trade and investment destination and a paradise for tourism. According to a 2019 report from U.N. World Tourism Organization, the island group is located on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which can help significantly boost the tourism industry in the archipelago.

In recognizing these trade benefits, the Indian government in 2017 constituted the Island Development Agency (IDA) for the development of the islands. India recently approved a long-awaited project to develop the archipelago’s infrastructure to benefit India’s economic goals in the Indo-Pacific region. The central government has cleared the way for a NITI Ayog project to construct an international seaport, airport, container transhipment terminal, township, and power plant on Nicobar Island. The project has a total value of 750 billion Indian rupees.

Economic activities and connectivity go hand in hand. In 2020 the island group was connected to the mainland through optical fiber cables, laying a cornerstone for future projects. The new NITI Ayog project will help increase the island’s economic activities though a boost in connectivity in the region. The transhipment terminal will potentially serve as an alternate transhipment facility on this busy shipping route.

Apart from this domestic project, the Indian government has also partnered with other countries to boost connectivity. In 2018, the Indian government partnered with the Indonesian government under the “Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” Through this project, a special task force was set up to increase connectivity between the Andaman and Nicobar islands and Indonesia’s Sabang port in Aceh to promote trade, tourism, and people-to-people contacts. These initiatives will encourage India’s economic ties in the Indo-Pacific region.

Strategic Potential

Beyond its economic potential, the island group is a strategic asset for India in the Bay of Bengal. In 2015 India’s then-Navy Chief R.K. Dhowan called the Andaman and Nicobar Islands a “very, very important aspect” for India’s security due to their strategic location: “They overlook the entire sealines of communications and choke lines” in the region.

Due to the strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the island group is also referred to as India’s unsinkable aircraft carrier to the East. The Six Degree or Great Channel is located south of the island chain, and the Ten Degree Channel lies between the Andaman and the Nicobar island groups. These channels lead to the Malacca Strait and are important to the sea lines of communication (SLOCs), along which global trade and commerce flow. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands intersect the Indian and Pacific Oceans, forming the pivot to the strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific.

The strategic significance of the island group has long been recognized. K.M. Pannikar, in his 1945 book “India and the Indian Ocean,” notes that the closeness of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the Malacca Strait provides India a natural base. If the islands are utilized fully in coordination with air power, Pannikar wrote, India can convert the Bay of Bengal into a secure area. Understanding this strategic need, India’s first and only tri-service command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), was established in the archipelago in 2001.

The significance of the strategic location is enormous for India’s foreign policy and especially for the Act East policy. The island provides a natural base for India to tackle major challenges in the Indian Ocean region like piracy, smuggling, SLOC security, and, most crucially, intrusions by Chinese ships.

In recent years China has been putting efforts into increasing its footprint in the Indian Ocean region to overcome its “Malacca dilemma” and fulfill its dream of a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

China has occasionally grown its footprints through fishing vessels; these vessels have at times entered India’s EEZ without prior notice. However, the most concerning security issues are raised by the intrusions of Chinese dual-use research vessels. These vessels can survey the characteristics of seawater in the region to improve China’s submarine warfare capabilities.

In April 2021, at the Raisina Dialogue organized in Delhi, former Naval Chief Admiral Karambir Singh discussed the regular visits of the Chinese navy to the Indian Ocean region. He also added that China is building its navy very quickly and added about 80 ships in just five years, proving the naval ambitions of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Another a retired naval officer for India noted at the dialogue that “The strategic importance of ANI is impelled primarily by the growing Chinese presence and involvement in the Indian Ocean Region.”

Considering the growing Chinese influence and ambitions in the region, Indo-Pacific governments are engaging in multiple security collaborations.

The Indian Navy organizes coordinated patrols with Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia for the region’s security. Also, INS Baaz and INS Kohassa, the two crucial naval air stations in the archipelago, are expanding their support operations.

The Andaman and Nicobar Command periodically conducts joint maritime exercises such as SIMBEX, the Singapore India Maritime Bilateral Exercise. The Indian forces also conduct MILAN, the largest naval exercise in the region.

The islands’ capacity can be enhanced if the Indian government provides friendly countries with access to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India can gain a lot from opening the archipelago to friendly countries like Australia, France, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. This step can increase maritime cooperation between India and these countries but also assert the influence of the Indian Navy in the region. Also, in return, India can consider requesting advanced military technological transfers, which are the need of the hour to counter Chinese influence in the region.

To sum up, after a long era of blindness toward the importance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Indian government is finally taking steps to harness the capabilities of this southernmost part of India. The recent projects initiated by the government will transform the islands and boost the Act East policy.

As India’s strategic asset, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have a tremendous capacity to help New Delhi engage the Indo-Pacific region and properly implement its Act East policy. The islands’ strategic and economic significance are crucial as the pivot to India’s maritime Act East policy.