Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Strategic Springboard for India

By Dhan Singh,
B Tech, MBA IIT Kanpur, India

It is imperative that our country has to craft its foreign policy in such a way so as to meet the numerous challenges of the twenty-first century. The challenges that the foreign policy has to contend with include inter-continental terrorism, piracy over high seas, global gun-running syndicates and the looming threat to disruption of sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and illegal exploitation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) critical for the growth of the economy of our country.

Strategic location of Andaman and Nicobar Islands:

India is strategically located in the centre of Asia and at the head of the Indian Ocean. By virtue of its geographical location, Andaman and Nicobar Islands enjoys a strategic location as the far south-easternmost part of India. Landfall Islands, the northern most island in the Andaman archipelago, is just about 20 km from Myanmar’s Coco Island (which is reportedly under Chinese control) while Indira Point at the tip of Great Nicobar, the southernmost island in the Nicobar archipelago, lies about 80 km from the tip of Sumatra in Indonesia. Thus, Andaman and Nicobar Islands is located at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca which is a significant trade route through which majority of trade occurs amongst various countries over the seas.

Evolution of the Defence Architecture in Andaman and Nicobar Islands:

The evolution of Andaman and Nicobar Islands from being simply an outpost in the Indian defence architecture to becoming an important strategic base has indeed been a long-drawn one. The Indian Union set up the Indian naval base named INS Jarawa in late 1960s which had primarily amphibious ships and to protect the Islands post the Sino-Indian war of 1962.The INS Jarawa was renamed Fortress Andaman (FORTRAN) in 1981.The naval air component in the form of INS Utkrosh was established near INS Jarawa in 1985.
The paradigm shift in the defence architecture of Andaman and Nicobar Islands occurred when the first integrated theatre command of the Indian Armed Forces was set up in the form of ‘Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC)’ at Port Blair in 2001.But with the limited joint capability among the three armed forces, ANC, hitherto, has had mixed results. ANC definitely is a step forward for the eventual reorganization of armed forces of our country into integrated theatre commands which will be better suited to deal with the security challenges decisively in a holistic manner.
With the nature of warfare changing from being manpower-intensive (as during the World war periods and some decades thereafter) to more technology-centric, there is an urgent need to institute a Force Structure Commission with an aim to improve the tooth-to-tail ratio resulting in an agile and responsive defence force.

Role of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in furthering the national interests of India:

Since the foreign policy is guided by the national interests of India,viz.,securing a peaceful and an amicable external environment to ensure the sustainable development of India so as to pull out the remaining millions from poverty and to ensure equitable development inside the country. In order to achieve a conducive external and internal environment for our country’s inclusive development, securing national borders is as significant as securing the exclusive economic zones which are repository of natural resources of various kinds and protecting the SLOCs from disruption in coordination with other countries both in immediate and extended neighborhood of India.

About 90% of India’s trade and oil imports are moved by sea lanes of communications (SLOCs), the prominent one passing through the Straits of Malacca to which Andaman & Nicobar Islands have geographical proximity. As our country’s economy becomes more globally integrated, it would become more dependent on the oceans.

The re-emergence of China has led to renewed interest in the Indian Ocean. Indian Ocean has acquired a great salience not only because of the various trade routes that pass through it but also as a bridge to connect the various countries located in the Indian Ocean region through initiatives like ‘Project Mausam’ and with the help of multilateral organizations like Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). ‘Project Mausam’ (being coordinated by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts IGNCA, New Delhi) aims to revive the historic maritime, cultural and economic ties with the 39 Indian Ocean countries including China and Pakistan.

In order to secure the maritime interest of India, Andaman and Nicobar Islands acquires a significant place because it hosts the first tri-services command of our country (Andaman Nicobar Command) which aims to provide a holistic security solution to strengthen the strategic position of India in the vicinity of the all-important Malacca Strait.

Evaluation of the Security & Strategic Policy in relation to Andaman & Nicobar Islands:

In present times, jointness amongst the various arms of the defence forces is the essential component of the military doctrine of any country. This is evident in the recent reduction in the size of the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China which has gone in for organizational restructuring of its armed forces in favor of increasing jointness and has set up Theatre Commands (to have a holistic view of the war zone) in the place of separate commands of army, navy or air force.

Recently in March 2016, Indian Navy, Army and the Indian Air Force participated in joint war game named ‘Jal Prahar’ in Andaman & Nicobar Islands under the aegis of Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC) where joint exercises in amphibious battlefield scenarios was practiced. Though such joint exercises which are being carried out at tactical levels are a step forward but for a leap forward in enhancing jointness amongst the three wings of Armed Forces and also the Coast Guard will happen only when there is jointness at strategic level amongst the various armed forces of our country.

The present obsession of the security establishment of our country with Pakistan has to give way to a more balanced approach to future security scenarios in which China should be given due importance in the long-term since China, the economic power that it is already, is also asserting itself militarily both in the South China sea and also in the various islands of the Indian ocean region. Andaman & Nicobar Islands becomes important because the maritime approach to South China Sea is through the Malacca Strait. Apart from being the storehouse of natural resources underneath the South China Sea, South China Sea is also important because more than 50% of India’s trade comes through the South China Sea if crude oil is excluded. Indian oil exploration companies like ONGC-Videsh has won contracts to prospect petroleum in blocks in South China Sea under the territorial jurisdiction of Vietnam. So, it would be prudent for our country to conduct joint exercises with Vietnam in the region of South China Sea (under the territorial jurisdiction of Vietnam) to protect mutual interests. India has rightly decided to stay put in Vietnam despite Chinese protests because ONGC-Videsh is prospecting in territories under the sovereign control of Vietnam from whom ONGC-Videsh had won a competitive contract. ONGC-Videsh should remain in Vietnam despite poor prospects of oil in order to maintain India’s strategic interest in the South China Sea.

With the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy of United States coming into play, US has deployed a large number of its forces and military equipment in the Asia-Pacific region which includes the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, in April 2016 US and India have concluded the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) vide which respective militaries of each country can access each other’s military bases for repair and refueling purposes. LEMOA is a step forward because it has formalized the existing arrangements of sharing of repair and refueling facilities between the militaries of US and India that had been existing earlier also. For China, it is important that India does not become the ally of US. Thus, India can use its strategic closeness to US as a bargaining chip with China to secure its national interests including an amicable settlement of the boundary dispute.

Since the trade routes converge in the Northern Indian Ocean, therefore China is primarily interested in the Northern Indian Ocean. The Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago located in the Northern Indian Ocean could thus be used as a ‘metal chain’ to block Chinese access to the Straits of Malacca, as argued by naval analyst Zhang Ming. While China is embarking on the grand plans of infrastructure development across the Indian Ocean region through its One Belt One Road (OBOR) that comprises the establishment of Maritime Silk Route through which it proposes to connect the various Indian ocean countries by developing ports (like Gwadar port in Pakistan, Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, Marau which is close to Male in Maldives), our country while being a part of the OBOR also needs to explore other strategic alternatives as it is attempting through Project Mausam by leveraging its core competencies, most notably its soft power and its age-old civilizational ties with the Indian Ocean countries. The Indian diaspora in Indian Ocean Region countries can be an added advantage that India enjoys unlike China, which is another important player in the Indian Ocean.

The way forward:

The stated policy of India is to become a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands by virtue of its strategic location is well suited to become the springboard using which our country and its military, most notably its navy (which is steadily developing its blue water capability) can project power deep inside the Indian Ocean and protect India’s national interests which extends from the strait of Hormuz in West Asia to the strait of Malacca in the East. To realize India’s full strategic potential in the Indian Ocean, Indian Navy needs to fast track its efforts in building maritime capacity especially in island states that occupy critical locations in the Indian Ocean and in these efforts Andaman and Nicobar Islands can become the winning ace.

The writer from the Islands is a Research Scholar in Management Department in IIT Kanpur. He also had a seven year stint as a Commissioned Officer in Defence.