The strategic location of these islands demands New Delhi’s full attention as it can open new vistas for India’s maritime strategy

by Harsh V Pant and Sohini Bose

Earlier this month, defence minister Rajnath Singh paid a two-day visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands where he took stock of the operational preparedness of the command and its infrastructural developments. On his way to the southern islands of the archipelago, he halted at Car Nicobar Island and Campbell Bay to appraise the ground conditions and interacted with the forces at Indian Naval Ship (INS) Baaz — India’s southernmost naval air station. The last stop of his visit was the southernmost point of Indian territory — the Indira Point overlooking the Grand Channel or the Six Degree Channel — a major shipping lane used for the passage of international maritime traffic from the West to the Straits of Malacca, and vice-versa. Herein, a strong presence of the Indian armed forces is deemed necessary to help the country better realise its aspiration of becoming the net security provider in the region.

It is important to view the visit not as a stand-alone event, but rather as the latest addition to a pattern in recent years. Singh’s tour of the island chain is reminiscent of similar visits by the two defence ministers preceding him: Nirmala Sitharaman in January 2019, and Manohar Parrikar in August 2016 and November 2015. Formal ceremonies aside, the objective of all three tours was to review the operational preparedness of the Andaman and Nicobar Command and interact with the troops stationed in these islands. A similar visit was also undertaken in 2018, by the defence minister of state, Subhash Ramarao Bhamre. These recurring visits validate the growing strategic significance of this island chain for New Delhi and have accordingly been complemented by its surging investments in the islands’ defence as well as developmental sectors.

An exclusive ₹5,650 crore military infrastructure development plan was finalised in 2019 to strengthen the capacity of the Andaman and Nicobar Command, providing for the stationing of additional military forces, warships, aircraft, missile batteries, and infantry soldiers at the islands. Parallelly, a comprehensive plan for “force accretion” at the Andaman and Nicobar Command by 2027 is also being nurtured, involving a phased increase in Army manpower and assets through an improvement of the existing 108 Mountain Brigade and a new infantry battalion, apart from other upgrades.

Following India’s Ladakh standoff with China, these plans gained a sense of urgency to counter China’s rising presence in the Indian Ocean. Subsequently, in 2021, there were also reports of runways being extended at the naval air stations; INS Kohassa in Shibpur and INS Baaz in Campbell Bay to support operations by large aircraft. India has also engaged in efforts to maintain collaborative security in the islands, such as the Japan-United States “fishhook” or Sound Surveillance System, a chain of sensors designed to track submarines. This will create a counter-wall against Chinese submarines in the Andaman Sea and deep South China Sea, especially with like-minded nations working together on sharing intelligence.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, demarcating the Bay of Bengal from the Andaman Sea, are ideally placed to maintain stability in both these critical maritime spaces. These have been identified as “primary areas of interest” by the Indian Navy in the Indian Maritime Security Strategy. Militarisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is also necessary to protect the several shipping routes it straddles, as blockades in these chokepoints would harm both domestic and global commerce. The islands are also uniquely positioned for India to undertake surveillance operations and monitoring in the Straits of Malacca to ensure freedom of navigation in these waters. This is especially useful in the face of China’s assertive attempts to overcome its Malacca Dilemma — Beijing’s fear of a maritime blockade in the Straits.

However, while it is true that India’s defence postures in the islands are largely driven by China’s assertive behaviour in the Indian Ocean, it would be inadequate to assume that all of its attempts originate from apprehensions. Rather, these should be interpreted within the much wider gamut of the country seeking greater prominence in the Indo-Pacific, and thereby trying to harness the islands’ strategic position to emerge as the net security provider in the region. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are located close to Southeast Asia (and Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries) which are central to the country’s Indo-Pacific vision.

Therefore, the Coordinated Patrol (CORPAT) exercises that the Andaman and Nicobar Command holds with several Southeast Asian countries as well as the multinational MILAN exercise it coordinates, help not only in realising India’s Act East policy but also its Act Indo-Pacific policies.

Towards this end, India is also trying to develop the islands as the country’s first maritime hub and a transhipment port for the region. After all, the islands form an ideal gateway into the wider waters of the Indo-Pacific, being located close to the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The strategic location of these islands demands New Delhi’s full attention as it can open new vistas for India’s maritime strategy.