Faced with an increasing presence from China in the Indian Ocean, India’s military is at work expanding its presence in the outlying Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These islands are located near the important Strait of Malacca through which China’s ships transit into the Indian Ocean from the east. India is set to expand its naval and air force bases there so to better provide surveillance of Chinese ships before they can even enter the Indian Ocean. While Beijing claims that its presence in the Indian Ocean is not directed at India, New Delhi fears otherwise.
Located just north of Indonesia, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands rest between the Bay of Bengal to the west and the Andaman Sea to the east. Great Nicobar Island, the southernmost point of India and of the island chain stands next to the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. Over 60,000 ships pass through the Malacca Strait every year and it is the energy lifeline for Southeast and East Asian countries. The Strait is also the closest access point from China to the Indian Ocean. For those reasons, the islands location is a significant asset to India in checking Chinese naval power in the region.
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India’s Expansion of Military Presence
Port Blair which is the administrative center of the Andaman Islands currently hosts the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) of the Indian Armed Forces. The ANC is the only joint tri-service command in India’s military and comprises forces from the navy, air force, and army. Established in 2001 to allow for joint operations between the three armed services, the ANC saw little development until recently. There were attempts to expand the military presence though no serious inroads were made over the years. Under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi though, there is a concerted effort to expand as Modi seeks to reassert India’s traditional dominance over the Indian Ocean.
At opposite ends of the island chain, India is constructing longer airstrips that will be able to host long-range surveillance aircraft. In the south at Campbell Bay there is INS Baaz, an airbase that was constructed in 2012 overlooking the Malacca Strait. Currently, New Delhi plans to greatly extend the length of the runway there allowing the base to take on bigger planes such as the Boeing P8 surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. There are plans to in the near future to place multirole Su-30MKI fighter jets at both INS Baaz and at NAS Shibpur which is located on North Andaman Island. These will provide the Indian military with a powerful strike capability that can be used against enemy warships if needed.
Meanwhile the Indian Navy is looking to double the vessels it has in the ANC to 32 by 2022. Already around 14 ships such as patrol boats, fast attack craft (FAC), and amphibious landing ships are based at INS Jarawa in Port Blair though future plans call for larger, more capable warships such as frigates to be based there. To help facilitate the expansion of the base, plans are in place to acquire a new floating dry dock for the base that will supplement the floating dock already in operation there.
China and the Indian Ocean
Ships of China’s Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have increasingly been making forays into the Indian Ocean and docking in ports of India’s neighbors. This is causing concern in New Delhi where it is feared that China is attempting to increase its influence and presence in the Indian Ocean where India has been the dominant power. Chinese officials have repeatedly denied any hostile intentions though have also said that Indian should not consider the Indian Ocean as its own backyard. Both countries share somewhat good relations though there are many issues that cause dispute and this is one of them.
Senior Captain Zhao Yi, associate professor of the Institute of Strategy in China’s National Defense University recently said “backyard is not a very appropriate word to use for an open sea and international areas of sea.” This was said in Beijing during an interaction with Indian journalists in response to a question regarding increasing Chinese navy forays into the Indian Ocean. Zhao did admit though that India “has a special role to play in stabilizing the Indian Ocean region” due to geographical considerations. Meanwhile Senior Captain Wei Xiao Dong, chief of staff of the Shanghai Naval Garrison said in response to Indian journalists concerns about PLAN activities in the Indian Ocean, that there is no reason to “show concern or worry”.
For New Delhi, more unsettling than PLAN warships entering the Indian Ocean, is the presence of PLAN submarines. In May, a PLAN Type 041 submarine for the first time docked in Karachi, Pakistan. China immediately downplayed the event saying that PLAN activities in the Indian Ocean such as this routine port visit are “open and transparent” and that they are not directed at any nation. Last September, a PLAN submarine docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka and several weeks later in November another PLAN submarine along with a warship docked in Sri Lanka.
While Beijing paints its intentions for the Indian Ocean as nothing but peaceful, its dialogue is mixed with veiled threats aimed at New Delhi. On one hand China states that its ships are just transiting or taking part in training missions while on the other hand it is quick to claim that the Indian Ocean is not the sole preserve of India. True, the Indian Ocean does not belong to India but India is the dominant power and has every right to be concerned when PLAN warships are visiting the ports of countries India has less than positive relations with.
The expansion of the military bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will provide India with the means to better check incoming PLAN vessels before they can reach the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. In a way the islands can be viewed as the first line of defense India has against China in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, their location near the Malacca Strait is of vital importance. Over three-quarters of China’s energy imports flow through that Strait. In the event of a conflict between India and China, India has the means to blockade the Strait and in the process, deprive China of oil and gas; one would hope though that such a scenario will not come to pass. Regardless, New Delhi is taking a smart step by expanding its military presence in the islands, one which might cause Beijing to rethink its plans in the Indian Ocean.