The Andaman and Nicobar Islands: India’s Eastern Anchor in a Changing Indo-Pacific
Editor’s Note: This is the nineteenth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.
India’s military priorities are highlighted by its defense budget: the army funded at 55 percent, the air force at 23 percent, and the navy at a meager 15 percent. Since independence, troubles along India’s continental borders, including wars with China and Pakistan, have kept the country’s defense focused on its northern frontiers. A quiet maritime environment and a strong navy inherited from the British have allowed India to establish a prominent role in the Indian Ocean region without much effort.
In particular, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been neglected in Delhi’s strategic and political priorities, especially given their distance (approximately 1200 kilometers from the mainland). Priorities within the navy focused on strengthening India’s immediate coastline while the islands’ potential was something to be taken advantage of later. However, recent developments in maritime Asia have forced Delhi to re-examine its naval priorities, and the current government has started showing more enthusiasm for maritime security.
The Indian Ocean, which remained quiet after the Cold War, is reemerging as a critical theater for strategic competition. As China expands its presence in the Indian Ocean and strengthens its engagement with littoral states in South Asia, India is beginning to formulate a new maritime approach to retain its prominence in the region. While India is concerned about China’s engagement across the Indian Ocean, developments in the South Asian maritime domain are of particular concern.
Critically situated near the Malacca Strait, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could significantly alter the maritime dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. While the islands have been envisaged as a platform for offensive capabilities, their true benefit today lies in furthering maritime domain awareness and maintaining a naval advantage for India and its friends. In addition to formulating a coherent strategy for the role of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in its national maritime approach, Delhi must also find a way to make use of its partners in addressing the islands’ lack of physical infrastructure. While India has neglected its naval priorities, the maritime domain gives it an opportunity to establish itself as a leading regional actor. These maritime advantages will help India balance and respond to a rising and assertive China in its neighborhood.
Putting the Andamans into Perspective
Historically, maritime powers have used the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to project power in the Indian Ocean and as a key base for expeditions to the east. Rajendra Chola I of the Chola empire first tapped into their strategic advantages. The Chola dynasty was one of the most powerful in the history of South India, and its strong navy played a critical role in its expeditionary missions to Southeast Asia. After conquering modern-day Sri Lanka, Chola’s navy used the Andamans as a base to launch successful raids on the ports of the Srivijaya empire, based in modern-day Indonesia.
Among modern nation-states, the British and the Japanese effectively used the Andamans to advance their strategic aims. The British Empire kept a strong foothold in the Andamans and used them to expand its security footprint in the subcontinent and across the Indian Ocean. During World War II, the Japanese captured the islands in an attempt to fight the British and expand their presence in the region. Imperial Japan also used the islands to attack Burma and Northeast India.
Throughout history, these islands have been vital to nations expanding their maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. The Andamans provide a bridge between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean and overlook one of the busiest sea lanes of communications in the world. Moreover, they are a key chokepoint and trading route for goods traversing the waters of the Indian Ocean to East and Southeast Asia.
Projecting Indian Power
India maintains an unparalleled geographic advantage over China in the Indian Ocean, since the Indian Navy is based in this theater. However, China is beginning to address its weaknesses in the Indian Ocean, such as by starting to forward deploy with its base in Djibouti. Beijing is building a series of commercial ports in the Indian Ocean that boost its strategic presence in the region. These ports — strategically located in Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives — could eventually serve a military purpose.
Unfortunately, the political class in Delhi has for far too long downplayed the emerging challenge that China poses in the maritime domain and overlooked its own advantages such as the Andamans. The Indian Ministry of Defence has been primarily focused on strengthening its capabilities along its northern borders, where India has territorial disputes with Pakistan in the west and China in the east. Delhi’s approach to the maritime domain is both new and largely reactive to the changing maritime environment. As the Sino-Indian competition continues to deepen in South Asia, Delhi must be willing to develop its advantages in the Indian Ocean region.
Beijing is concerned that, unless it can secure its own sea lanes of communication to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf via the Malacca Strait, it could be vulnerable to a U.S. and India-led blockade during a conflict. Yet it is unlikely that the United States and India would do this given that any attempt to blockade the strait would amount to a declaration of war against China. While this remains an option in a wartime situation, there are other good reasons to develop the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that may contribute to deterring China.
The real advantage the Andamans provide to India is the ability to conduct surveillance over critical waters. As the main entry and exit point to and from the Indian Ocean, the islands offer unparalleled advantage in surveillance and monitoring the Malacca Strait. A coherent monitoring and response mechanism will help India detect Chinese vessels upon their entry into the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Navy’s 2015 maritime strategy lists maritime domain awareness as a critical tool for achieving a favorable maritime environment. The strategy takes a bolder approach to the changing environment and is much more forward-looking than its predecessor in 2007. Maritime domain awareness, according to the navy, “involves being cognizant of the position and intentions of all actors, whether own, hostile or neutral, and in all dimensions—on, over and under the seas.” If it can create the required “situational awareness” through surveillance and monitoring of the Malacca Strait, India and its partners will be prepared to respond to threatening developments. Maritime domain awareness through the Andamans is critical, especially in monitoring sub-surface vessels. If not detected while leaving harbor or transiting through the strait, submarines are almost impossible to track in open seas. Given its crucial location, the Malacca Strait could help India track the movements of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. If detected at the entry point, India will be able to deploy the required assets to continue tracking such movements.
The Andamans also facilitate India’s reach over the Indonesian straits, which may become alternate transit routes for sub-surface vessels. Given the shallow waters and heavy traffic density of Malacca (which forces submarines to surface), it is likely that the straits of Sunda, Lombok, and Ombai will quickly become alternate routes for military vessels entering the Indian Ocean. In fact, China is already using the Lombok straits as a routine entry for its ships and vessels. While using these straits comes with legal and territorial issues, as well as other limitations, it is not impossible to use them. Relying on the geographical proximity afforded by the Andamans, India can collaborate with Indonesia to patrol and monitor these straits to uphold a rules-based order.
The Challenges India Faces
As India continues to develop the islands, it must prioritize strengthening its air, surface, and sub-surface surveillance capabilities. The islands need to be capable of basing and deploying surveillance resources and require stronger anti-submarine warfare and early warning capabilities. India should also upgrade the islands’ communications infrastructure and integrate it with maritime domain awareness facilities on the mainland. The current infrastructure is poor and cannot sustain a coherent surveillance strategy. There is an urgent need to enhance the islands’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance cover to fully utilize their potential.
However, transforming the islands from a strategic outpost to a key forward operating base will require significant development of the islands and procurement of new assets. The islands are currently home to modest military assets and infrastructure with tremendous, though underutilized, potential. Surveillance assets such as the P-8i’s are deployed to the Andamans from the mainland. The islands will require considerable military and civilian infrastructure to support the required force structure of a full-fledged forward operating military base.
However, developing these islands will carry massive environmental, sustainability, and tribal welfare challenges. There is an island-wide restriction on clearing land for development, and 94.68 percent of the islands is under forest cover. The presence of indigenous tribes on the islands has also restricted commercial activities and development near tribal areas. While the current government is taking initiatives to transform the islands into a maritime hub, the pace of progress is not fast enough to match maritime developments in the region.
While Delhi struggles to develop its own islands, Beijing is moving steadfastly to build maritime facilities in India’s neighborhood and across the Indian Ocean region. China’s deepening military and commercial engagements with the Indian Ocean littoral states could undermine India’s role if it fails to maintain its maritime advantages. While India debates a broader road map for developing the islands, it can utilize its existing facilities to strengthen its maritime domain awareness.
Transforming the Andamans into a Strategic Hub
One of India’s first attempts at strengthening its military presence on the islands was establishing the country’s only tri-services command in Port Blair in 2001. The command was established against the backdrop of increasing transnational crime around the islands and a better understanding of their strategic potential in the maritime domain. However, despite the presence of all three services, the Andaman and Nicobar Command has yet to realize its potential. The command has limited assets and presence in comparison to a theater-level presence of a joint command. While it has the potential to be the forward operating base for all of India’s engagements with Southeast Asia, right now it mainly acts as a logistical facility for deployments of India’s Eastern Naval Command to the East and Southeast Asia. Even for this role, the Andaman and Nicobar Command desperately needs an extension and upgrade of the runways, jetties, and ports located there.
The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean significantly destroyed existing infrastructure on the Andamans, including major roads, lands, and bridges. Although Delhi made considerable reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, major military infrastructure remains inadequately rebuilt. The tsunami aggravated the poor connectivity between the islands. One of the major routes linking North and South Andaman was damaged during the disaster and has yet to be fully reconstructed. The infrastructure and connectivity problems were largely neglected until recently. Since the islands are a biodiversity hotspot as well as home to about 27,000 members of indigenous tribes, most development and construction-related projects require clearances from the Department of Environment and Forest and from the Department of Tribal Welfare. However, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government has been able to push forward on many of these projects and get the necessary clearances to boost connectivity and infrastructure on the islands.
The appointment of Admiral D. K. Joshi, the former chief of the Indian Navy, as the lieutenant governor of the islands in October 2017 was a positive development that boosted Delhi’s more active approach. Establishing a former naval chief as administrative head will allow a better understanding of the security, economic, and commercial potential and limitations in developing the islands. Some recent initiatives have been focused on enhancing communications infrastructure, better connectivity, acquiring platforms for amphibious operations, strengthening maintenance and repair facilities, regular deployments of surveillance capabilities, strengthening military-to-military ties with Southeast Asia, and building missile facilities.
Leveraging India’s New Maritime Partnerships
While India has clearly shown its intention to develop the islands, it still faces significant challenges. Apart from environmental and tribal welfare concerns, the government also lacks the capital to build the required infrastructure on the islands. It must find a way to collaborate with its partners to advance its development vision. Many of India’s naval partners have specific expertise that can help in this area. For example, India and Japan are building infrastructure and connectivity corridors in the Indian Ocean, including the Asia-Africa Growth corridor. These initiatives provide an opportunity to develop many civilian projects on the islands, like ports and highways. Similarly, as India continues to build its partnership with the navies of the United States, Australia, and Indonesia, it should use these collaborations to advance its maritime domain awareness capabilities on the islands, such as partnering with France on development of renewable energy. India has historically been sensitive about international involvement with the islands, barring even partners from making port calls and military visits outside of the MILAN exercise. But it must shed that cautious approach and start to discuss possible areas of collaboration.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands provide significant surveillance and monitoring advantages to India’s navy. If India can chart out a role for the islands in its maritime domain awareness project, it can achieve far greater deterrence through staging and power projection. Additionally, the Andamans provide excellent opportunities to deepen India’s new maritime partnerships with countries such as Japan, the United States, Australia, and France.
India’s approach is a testament to its continued neglect of its maritime advantages, though the attention given in the past few years has been an exception. Despite having significant coastline and positioning itself as a maritime power, Delhi has done little to elevate its actual maritime potential. It may be that the absence of confrontation in the maritime domain has allowed India to ignore its naval advantages as the Defense Ministry remained engaged in continental troubles. The lack of a coherent naval strategy has contributed significantly to such neglect.
Developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will give India new options and opportunities as it continues to grow its partnerships and respond to a rising China. The islands will contribute to India’s advantages, create more room for debate on deterrence policies, and contribute positively to India’s effort to establish itself as a serious regional actor. Conversely, however, continued neglect will call into question the country’s seriousness about maritime security — something India must prioritize as its foreign policy evolves.
Darshana M. Baruah is a research analyst and program administrator with Carnegie India. Her primary research focuses on maritime security in Asia with a focus on the Indian Navy and its role in a new security architecture.
Image: Pratitimajumdar/Wikimedia Commons