Updated: Aug 5, 2021
by Sitendu De
“Whoever controls Indian Ocean controls Asia”. - Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Naval Strategist
Rip Van Winkle woke up after 20 years of sleep --- well India also woke up but only after 33 years. The idea of militarizing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands started in the 1980s after Indian defense experts advocated building strong strategic infrastructure at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) but India has still a long way to go.
When India saw Chinese Navy ships and submarines moving around stealthily in the Indian Ocean and building up ports at Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Chittagong (Bangladesh), and Kyaukpyu (Myanmar) it suddenly felt that she is being entrapped by her enemy. India felt worse when they saw the Chinese Army building a base on Coco Island in the Alexandra Channel. The water body lies between the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea north of India's the Andaman Islands. The two islands of the Coco group were leased to China in 1994 by Myanmar. Interestingly the Coco islands were supposed to be gifted to Myanmar by Nehru.
These islands are located at a crucial point in traffic routes between the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca. These can be used to monitor Indian naval and missile launch facilities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the south and movements of the Indian Navy and other navies throughout the eastern Indian Ocean.
China has been working on an expansionist mode in the garb of the “Belt and Road Initiative “since the 1990s. China is supported by Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. China wishes its expansion to be both economic and political.
When the “West” imposed sanctions on Myanmar, it came up as a support to China. China took advantage of this and established a strong military presence on Coco Islands. Myanmar lets China access its naval routes and ports and also the deepwater port at Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal. It has installed an 85 metre jetty, naval facilities, and Electronic Intelligence systems at Great Coco Islands.
There are a huge number of Chinese military technology and men based on these islands. The presence of the Coco islands is a way for the Chinese Blue Water Navy to become a reality. It is a part of China's plan to encircle India through the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean. China also has its oil and energy supplies being shipped through the Strait of Malacca route. India, the US, Japan, and Australia (QUAD members) are all concerned about China's presence everywhere.
The only way out to counter Chinese unwanted presence in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal is to build up the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) into a strong militarized zone.
What strategic importance do Andaman & Nicobar Islands hold for India?
ANI is an important chokepoint as it is located at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, adjacent to the western entrance to the Malacca Strait which is one of the busiest trade routes in the world.
Geopolitically, the ANI connects South Asia with South-East Asia. The islands are far from the Indian mainland but are comparatively closer to places in Thailand, Indonesia, and Myanmar. Indira Point, the southernmost tip of the Great Nicobar Island is just 215 Km away from Banda Aceh on Sumatra Island
More than sixty thousand commercial vessels pass from the South China Sea and Pacific to the Indian Ocean in between North and South Nicobar Islands which is also known as “the Six degrees” and “the Ten-degree channel”.
The ANI could be used for India’s Third Fleet and the trans-shipment hub at Car Nicobar, a strategic game-changer ----- rivaling the ports of Singapore or Colombo.
ANI is presently a “Gold Mine” for India, why?
Two-third of Great Nicobar is occupied by Biosphere Reserves, known as “Galathea National Park”.
ANI is full of natural resources. The Nicobar Islands are virtually sitting on gas reserves.
ANI has red oil seeds, rubber, and palm and cashew plantation.
Full of pristine coral reefs.
A trans-shipment port at ANI will decrease the dependence on re-fuelling at Colombo and Singapore ports.
One-third of the world’s shipping containers and half of the annual crude coming from the Middle East and Africa while entering the Indian Ocean takes two routes (a) Through Hambantota Port – Chittagong Port and then proceeds towards Southeast Asian countries. (b) Through Straits of Malacca – Singapore Port – to South East Asian Countries. ANI can be developed as a Trans -Shipment Port City which can become a good substitute for these ports as these have anchoring facilities and also has the required capacity.
It can be built into a “Shipbuilding facility” as it is at the junction of the world’s busiest trade route. Bangladesh has cashed on this aspect. Its Chittagong Port is famous for its shipbuilding facility, ship scrapping, and recycling business. After 2008, Bangladesh has now become a hub of small and medium-sized shipbuilding. It has generated more than $ 500 million in revenue which is expected to cross $4 billion by the end of 2021. World’s 50% ships are old i.e. it is more than 20 years old, meaning it needs replacement. So small and medium-size ship market is $200 billion markets.
The Indian Ocean has 16.8% proven oil reserves & 27.9% gas reserves. 15% of fishing is done in this region. ANI can become a maritime hub.
Copper, Nickel, Iron, Cobalt, Silver, and Gold are found in this region.
The Next Step
When India first began developing the ANI in the mid-1980s, countries like Malaysia and Indonesia feared that India would use its military facilities in the ANI to dominate its region, and project power east of Malacca but those fears were laid to rest when India started giving safe passage to their commercial ships.
To counter China’s expanding footprint in India’s sphere of maritime interest, India has given access to her friendly foreign navies (QUAD members, United States, Australia, and Japan) and also to the ANI’s military bases. Naval exercises are held regularly in this region.
The plan to integrate India’s undersea sensor chain with the existing US-Japan “Fish Hook” SOSUS network which seeks to monitor submarine activity in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Rim,
India's 'Double Fish Hook' strategy is expected to complement the fish hook strategy undertaken by the United States and its allies in the Pacific Ocean.
India's 'Double Fish Hook' strategy with the first hook starting from Andaman and Nicobar Islands, extending to Sabang port(Indonesia), Coco Islands (Australia), and ending at Diego Garcia, the US military base in Chagos Islands.
The second hook starts from Duqm Port (Oman), extending to French territories (Reunion Islands), Mauritius and if a connecting line is drawn, the fish hook will again end at Diego Garcia.
India continuously needs to collect a lot of information on maritime domains to keep a tab on activities that are going on in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal.
The presence of all the three forces at the ANI is required to avoid any possible war.
To defend islands from outside forces, four full-fledged airfields for surveillance are needed at Islands. India has only two, one at Port Blair and the other at Car Nicobar.
Besides airfields, other things like the Anti Access Area Denial Complex, sea bed sensors, land-based missiles, etc. are needed to physically defend against any attack.
ANI needs to be developed not only as Armed Forces strategic outpost but also as a business model. Once ANI turns into a commercial hub, countries in the neighbourhood will perceive military deployment at islands as a protection force for economic assets established on the islands.
There is tremendous potential for fisheries, seabed mining, and tourism at the islands. India needs to exploit that to generate funds and provide employment opportunities to people.
About the Author
Sitendu De got his education from St.George's Grammar School, Hyderabad and Post graduated from Osmania University, Hyderabad. He joined Cabinet Secretariat, New Delhi as an officer and was posted at different places in India. After serving for 20 years he joined the corporate world as a business strategist and recruiting new talents. He did Strategic Management Course from IIM (Calcutta). He is a prolific writer, specializes in geopolitical and human interactions. He lives in Kolkata with his wife and a son.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.