The Indian government is taking steps to realize the economic potential of Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI). These developmental works can be leveraged for strategic purposes making this island chain a top priority. These islands sit near the Strait of Malacca which is a strategically relevant waterway connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Coupled with developments in India-Vietnam relations, India seems to be increasing its sea control potential over this strait.
China’s investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has reached $62 billion from the initial allotment of $46 billion. This demonstrates the level of concern China has on securing a passage to the Indian Ocean bypassing the Strait of Malacca. The “Malacca Dilemma” has gripped China ever since it became apparent that a potential conflict involving itself would lead to its adversaries closing the strait denying access to much needed energy resources and trade.
Therefore, China has tried opening a land corridor through Myanmar to reach Bay of Bengal but the projects in this initiative have been facing delays and even closure. In this situation, China found Pakistan to be favorable given its long standing enmity with India and the geographical advantage of opening to the Arabian Sea. China has already built a naval base in Djibouti allowing it to link with Gwadar in Pakistan for securing its interests in the Indian Ocean.
Nevertheless, China’s reliance on the Strait of Malacca is not going to dwindle even if CPEC is completely operational and without incidents. In addition to the volume and feasibility concerns of transporting goods across CPEC and Western China, most of the developed areas lie on China’s Pacific coast and its seaborne trade is rising. China is home to 7 of the top 10 ports in the world based on cargo volume.
Therefore, India continues to assert its naval advantages in case of a conflict with China. The ANI and Vietnam sitting on two ends of the Strait of Malacca can be leveraged for obstructing China’s naval and merchant ships from crossing into the other ocean. The Chief of Staff of Indian Navy was on a visit to Vietnam recently consolidating the positive momentum in India-Vietnam defence and strategic relations. Two Indian naval ships docked in Vietnam on the occasion.
India has extended a $500 million line of credit last year on top of $100 million offered in 2014 to Vietnam for buying patrol boats. India also trains Vietnamese submariners as well as fighter pilots. Vietnam has extended India’s oil exploration rights in its maritime zone that is overlapping China’s claims. India’s constant naval presence could help avoid confrontations in Vietnam’s coastal region which is otherwise contested by China by deploying its maritime militia and coast guard forces.
In fact, Vietnam had offered permanent berthing rights to the Indian Navy at Na Thrang port but the offer was rejected in order not to irritate China. However, such an offer or for that matter India itself could pursue such rights in light of recent developments where China is blatantly inconsiderate of India’s interests and sensibilities. Either a permanently stationed force or rotating fleets of ships will add teeth to India’s responsibility to stabilize regional order.
These ships will ease information acquisition on movement of maritime and aerial assets across the South China Sea allowing the Indian Navy and its South East Asian partner navies to acquire better operational picture and coordinate actions. India is setting up a satellite data downlink center in Vietnam for providing situational awareness and the addition of ships will improve the accuracy of this data. In case of a conflict, India could dispatch its assets from Vietnam towards the Strait of Malacca which will be backed by assets sailing from the ANI.
Acknowledging the strategic potential of ANI, India has decided to invest Rs. 15,000 crore for developing these islands. In addition to boosting tourism and therefore local employment, infrastructure upgrade will also help military to undertake combat operations. The passenger transport ships being built by the Cochin shipyard will be able to carry 500 passengers and 150 tonne cargo while the new ones can carry 1,200 passengers and 1,000 tonnes of cargo between the mainland and ANI. These can be leveraged for special operations during emergencies. Similarly, air strips can be used for both economic and strategic purposes like the Dabolim airport in Goa demonstrates.
Meanwhile, the armed forces are yet to put in place relevant infrastructure and forces to make the ANI a formidable shield for India. The air strips have to be extended for allowing larger military aircraft to land such as the P-8I. A forward stationed P-8I will allow India to surveil the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea with greater intensity and can be linked to forward deployed naval ships. The military capacity building is proceeding at a slower pace on the ANI and the government has appointed a former naval chief as Lieutenant Governor to speed up these works.
It is well established that India does not clamour for war but advocates settlement of disputes through negotiations. Nevertheless, history and current developments suggest that potential for conflict exists requiring India to be fully prepared. The Strait of Malacca offers India a unique advantage to keep China from escalating a conflict and compel it to negotiate. By developing superior situational awareness and force levels around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Vietnam, India can control this strait with ease and therefore maintain regional stability.