Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Militarising Andamans: The costs and benefits

There is merit in collaborating with Indo-Pacific partners in the islands, but it will entail information-sharing too.
By IASToppers
July 30, 2020

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands
  • Strategic importance
  • Andaman and Nicobar Command
  • Militarising Andamans
  • Available Options
  • Challenges
  • Conclusion

Militarising Andamans: The costs and benefits

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Introduction:

The Ladakh stand-off with China has boosted India’s efforts to strengthen its military presence at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India has expedited plans for basing additional military forces, including facilities for additional warships, aircraft, missile batteries and infantry soldiers at the strategically-located Andaman Islands.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands:

  • The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a group of 572 islands (37 inhabited) located at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
  • They span 450 nautical miles in a roughly north-south configuration adjacent to the western entrance to the Malacca Strait (a major Indian Ocean chokepoint).
  • The Islands connect South Asia with South-East Asia.
  • The northernmost point of the archipelago is only 22 nautical miles from Myanmar, the southernmost point (Indira Point), is a mere 90 nautical miles from Indonesia.
  • The islands dominate the Bay of Bengal, the Six Degree and the Ten Degree Channels that more than sixty thousand commercial vessels traverse each year.
  • ANI constitute just 0.2 % of India’s landmass but provide 30% of its Exclusive Economic Zone.

Strategic importance:

  • One-Fourth of the total world population and one-third of littoral states of the world are located around the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
  • A large volume of the World’s trade, particularly oil and gas passes through this ocean.
  • The island chain acts as a physical barrier that secures busy Sea Lines of Communications by creating a series of chokepoints.
  • It includes the Preparis Channel in the north, Ten Degree Channel between ANI groups and Six Degree Channel to the south.
  • All the vessels that pass through Malacca Strait must traverse the Six Degree Channel.
  • The islands are located 1,500 kilometres from the mainland, they help to connect India to the Indo-Pacific.
  • They act as a buffer zone between India and the nations present in IOR.
  • India can defend its vital stakes in IOR and is a part of many maritime regional groupings due to the location of the islands.

Andaman and Nicobar Command:

  • Owing to the strategic significance of ANI, the Ministry of Defence created India’s sole joint command post in October 2001.
  • The Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) is headed by the chiefs of the three services in rotation.
  • It was created to safeguard India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca by increasing rapid deployment of military assets in the islands.
  • It conducts bi-annual coordinated patrols (CORPATs) with the navies of Thailand and Indonesia, the annual SIMBEX maritime exercise with Singapore, and the biennial Milan multilateral naval exercise.
  • It patrols India’s exclusive economic zone to check narcotics smuggling, piracy, poaching and conducts maritime surveillance, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).

Militarising Andamans:

  • The idea of militarising the Andaman Islands was advocated since the 1980s.
  • However, it was not an easy decision for Indian policymakers.
  • It was believed that turning the islands into a strategic-military garrison would infuriate countries in South and Southeast Asia and result in the militarisation of the littorals.
  • Malaysia and Indonesia feared that India would use its military facilities in the ANI to dominate its region, and project power east of Malacca.
  • Hence, the security presence at the strategic islands was kept minimum.
  • In the present times, amid growing threats from China, India is open to the idea of militarising the islands.

Available Options:

  • In 2016, India and Japan discussed a joint project to upgrade infrastructure in ANI.
  • This included 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 submarine activity in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean Rim.
  • Naval air stations INS Kohassa in Shibpur and INS Baaz in Campbell Bay are reportedly having their runways extended to support operations by large aircraft.
  • A 10-year infrastructure development roll-on plan pegged at Rs 5,000 crores is on the fast-track.
  • India can permit friendly foreign navies access to the ANI’s military bases.

Challenges:

1. Fragile Ecology:

  • In 2015, the government first announced its intention to transform the islands into a maritime hub — allocating Rs 10,000 crores for the purpose.
  • Since then the efforts to promote tourism and port development have hugely expanded.
  • For the purpose, NITI Aayog has a plan to construct hotels, resorts and a trans-shipment hub at Campbell Bay.
  • The recent infrastructure projects could devastate the fragile ecology of the Andaman which are already facing significant damage from the climate crisis.

2. Non-reciprocity in India’s bilateral logistics agreements:

  • There is an apparent lack of reciprocity in India’s bilateral logistics agreements.
  • The Indian navy’s plans to offer logistical support to partner navies do not include its ANI facilities.
  • Four years after signing a logistics pact with the United States, its navy ships have no access to ANI.
  • France, Singapore and Australia — India’s other logistics partners haven’t had their warships repaired or replenished at Indian island facilities.
  • India’s unwillingness to open its island bases to foreign warships has hampered the performance of the logistics arrangements.
  • To counter China’s expanding footprint in India’s sphere of maritime interest, it is advocated to grant the permit to Japan, Australia and France and the US to build strategic capabilities at the ANI.

3. Reciprocal Militarisation:

  • China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is growing, but it hasn’t militarised key Belt and Road Initiative outposts in Bay of Bengal (Hambantota, Chittagong and Kyaukphyu) yet.
  • If India pushes for greater military presence in ANI, China could well seek military access in friendly Bay countries.

4. Critical Information sharing:

  • A region-wide undersea chain of sensors to detect Chinese submarines call for a degree of caution.
  • To operate sensitive equipment with foreign partners might involve sharing of critical undersea’ data with foreign collaborators.
  • While the Japanese Maritime Self -Defence Force and US Navy personnel jointly manage 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.
  • Hence, an Indo-Japanese-US project in the Andaman Sea might require a level of information access that the Indian Navy may not be comfortable with.

Conclusion:

Keeping in mind the strategic location of ANI and growing ambitions of China, strengthening collaboration with Indo-Pacific partners must be a priority for Indian decision-makers. However, the downsides of offering foreign navies access to its island facilities must be taken into account. The final decision should be based on a weighing of costs and benefits and changing dynamics of the region.

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