With growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region, analysts have called for maximum utilisation of its naval base at the Andaman and Nicobar islands to counter China’s expanding footprint.
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While India and China are already engaged in a bitter standoff in eastern Ladakh, military experts have called for New Delhi to not just enhance its strategic capabilities but also permit military access to its allies including Japan, Australia, France and the US in the archipelago.
Recently, the Indian Navy conducted a major exercise off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in a clear display of strategic intent against China amid the ongoing standoff in eastern Ladakh. In addition to that, the runways at naval air station INS Kohassa at Shibpur in North Andaman are extended to support operations by large aircraft.
Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) is India’s first and only “theatre command” with all land, sea and air forces under one operational commander. Even the 10-year infrastructure development “roll-on” plan worth Rs. 5,000 crores is fast-tracked. Analysts believe that these make the “choke points” of China which can be threatened via ANC.
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“When India first began developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the mid-1980s, observers said that Malaysia and Indonesia had been wary. Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur feared that India would use its military facilities in the islands to dominate its region, and project power east of Malacca,” wrote Abhijit Singh, a retired naval officer.
He added that New Delhi’s willingness to keep its security presence at the strategic islands to a minimum assured many in Asia that its motives were benign.
“Today, amid growing threats from China, New Delhi seems open to the idea of militarizing the islands. But, many believe that opening up Andaman and Nicobar Island’s military facilities to foreign navies could still spook regional states.”
The critics have also pointed out the environmental costs of the infrastructure projects planned by Niti Aayog to construct hotels, resorts and a trans-shipment hub. Many islands are already facing significant damage due to the climate crisis.
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Singh explained the “kind of asymmetry” that lies in the proposition of militarisation of the islands. The Indian navy’s plans to offer logistical support to partner navies do not, ostensibly, include its island facilities.
India and the US signed the logistics pact but it doesn’t allow the US navy ships access to the islands. Even with the Changi naval base in Singapore that provides logistical support to the Indian navy ships, similar access isn’t reciprocated by India at Andaman and Nicobar islands.
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In 2016, India and Japan discussed a joint project to enhance infrastructure in the islands, including a proposal to install a sound surveillance sensors (SOSUS) chain to improve India’s underwater domain awareness.
“The plan was to integrate India’s undersea sensor chain with the existing US-Japan “Fish Hook” SOSUS network meant specifically to monitor People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) submarine activity in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Rim,” said Singh.
He further added that its utility in detecting Chinese submarines, a region-wide undersea chain of sensors has implications that call for a degree of caution. “In particular, Delhi needs to consider the possibility that operating sensitive equipment with foreign partners might involve sharing of critical undersea’ data with foreign collaborators,” he stated.
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The Japanese Maritime Self -Defence Force (JMSDF) and US Navy personnel jointly maintain the JMSDF Oceanographic Observation Centre in Okinawa, the information is available to the US Pacific Command, and the facility is controlled by the US Navy. Such a collaboration that would require information access is bound to make the Indian Navy uncomfortable.
Analysts argue that with China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) outposts in the Bay of Bengal and New Delhi’s joint exercises carried out with the US and Japanese navy in the Indian Ocean, Beijing may seek military access through its friendly nations.
“Strengthening collaboration with Indo-Pacific partners at the Andaman and Nicobar islands is very much an option for Indian decision-makers to consider. But New Delhi must also take into account the downsides of offering foreign navies access to its island facilities. The final decision should be based on a dispassionate weighing of costs and benefits,” Singh concluded.