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Navy day 2020: With Andaman islands in focus, India’s task is cut out in the Indo-Pacific region

Navy day 2020: With Andaman islands in focus, India’s task is cut out in the Indo-Pacific region

After years of delay and growing Chinese military profile in the India Ocean, the navy has woken up to leveraging the prime strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar islands to exert influence over the Malacca straits—a key artery serving global trade.

Commercial ships have to pass through the Malacca straits, which links the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

India’s rising interest in the Andaman and Nicobar islands has been glaring after the region received a major infrastructure boost following New Delhi’s decision to fast-track construction of a world class trans-shipment hub in the Great Nicobar Island in the Andaman sea.

Once it comes online, the new Indian Ocean port at South Bay on the eastern wing of the Great Nicobar island, will string with other mega-sized deepwater transhipment ports– Dubai, Colombo, Klang in Malaysia, and Singapore— along the great east-west shipping route.

These big “mother ports,” in the west and the east of India, allow ultra-large container ships with drafts of 15 meters or above to dock. Feeder vessels, with smaller drafts, then load cargo from the big ships, and ferry them to ports which are unable to accommodate king-sized floats.

The South Bay port’s strategic importance is obvious. It is close to the six-degree channel, an incredibly important global shipping lane, which feeds into the Malacca straits—a major choke point that links the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Malacca straits is the heartbeat of trade with the Indo-Pacific, the fastest growing region in the world on either side of the channel.

On August 10, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also inaugurated a 2,312 kilometre submarine fibre optic link between Chennai, a bustling metropolis on the Indian east coast, with the Andaman and Nicobar—a centrally administered archipelago of 572 islands that separate the waters of the Bay of Bengal from the Andaman sea in the eastern Indian Ocean.

The Andaman Islands are only 130 kilometres southwest from Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady region, while the southern tip of Nicobar is on Indonesia’s doorstep—only 150 kilometres from Bandar Aceh, which is part of the island of Sumatra, to the south.

When Modi shared his vision of the future of Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI), in which he enveloped the development of these island territories with the broader Indo-Pacific strategy, China, notably, was the big elephant in the room.

The timing of the Indian Prime Minister’s initiative was carefully chosen. The ANI were entering their next phase of development at a time when Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in a tense border standoff in the mountainous region of Ladakh. Simultaneously, an influential body of opinion was developing in New Delhi that in case the pressure on the land border did not ease anytime soon, India should consider intervening in the six degree and ten-degree channels of the ANI—Beijing’s trade lifeline in the Indo-Pacific. “The Six Degree and Ten Degree Channels in the Andaman Sea which lead to the Malacca Strait are vital to the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) along which flows global commerce, including energy trade, between Asia, Africa and the Pacific. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are at the intersection of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and further to the Pacific Ocean, an important fulcrum of the strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific,” writes Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General of the New Delhi based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Such a move, if undertaken, would be in sync with the real geopolitical transformation is taking place in the Indo-Pacific. In July US aircraft carrier group—USS Nimitz, on its return from the South China , where it was facing off with China carried out naval exercises with Indian warships at the six-degree channel on the mouth of the Malacca straits.

Last month, in yet another message to China, the Indo-Pacific Quad comprising India, Japan and US were joined by Australia for staggered Malabar series of exercises that took place on both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

These manoeuvres have place at a time when the geopolitical architecture in the region is changing rapidly. In July, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo virtually bugled the commencement on
Cold War 2.0 with China. During an address at the Nixon centre in California, Pompeo announced that the 50-year-old US policy of engagement with China had failed, signalling that the gloves were off, and a new era of Beijing’s active containment, possibly by a new coalition, had dawned.

It is in the context of the shared objective of restraining China that fresh thinking is now required to knit a coherent Indo-Pacific strategy in the Indian and the Pacific oceans.

Historically, the emergence of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the onset of the Cold War, led John Foster Dulles, a former US Secretary of State, to develop the “island chain strategy” of besieging China and the former Soviet Union from the sea.

Dulles’s doctrine, aired during the heat of the Korean War in the early fifties, had three layers. Of the three island chains, the “first island chain” was the most important. The lengthy network starts from Kamchatka peninsula in Russia’s Far East and weaves its way into Japan. Then, from the southernmost part of the Japanese mainland, it passes through Okinawa, a part of a larger Ryukyu island chain which ends with Taiwan. From Taiwan, the “first island chain” heads towards the Philippines and the island of Borneo, before looping towards the tip of the Malay Peninsula. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first island chain has begun to increasingly focus on China.

In case a new Indo-Pacific doctrine is evolved, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands can be linked as a natural extension of the island chain strategy, providing a continuous oceanic wall in the
Indo-Pacific to keep the Middle Kingdom constrained.

In the Pacific, two-quad members—the US and Japan are showing the way for maintaining a strict vigil on China above and beneath the sea surface. The two countries have established an undersea sound surveillance sensor (SOSUS) chain to keep watch on Chinese submarine activity. This is reinforced by mounting joint long-range maritime air patrols.

By 2005, the two strategic partners had established the Fish Hook Undersea Defence Line, which extended from Japan to southeast Asia, including Indonesia. It is therefore eminently possible now to push this line further from Sumatra in Indonesia to the Great Nicobar island, where India has already established a tri-service military command.

There is also a suggestion that India and Australia —the other two quad partners—collaborate in deploying long range planes from the Andaman and Australia’s Keeling (Cocos) Islands, among the next steps to flesh out the Indo-Pacific quad to enforce a rule-based order in the region..