India Hurries to Develop Strategic Indian Ocean Islands to Counter China

August 27, 2020 Updated: August 27, 2020

India has recently renewed its attention to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, which occupy a key location in West-East maritime trade, with a series of infrastructure, economic, and defense projects that experts say will help India and its Indo-Pacific allies.

The country is upgrading two airstrips on the islands into full-fledged fighter aircraft bases, according to Aug. 25 media reports, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun other development projects in the past few weeks.

“The Andaman and Nicobar Islands provide critical access and key entry and exit points for the Indian Ocean. They oversee the Strait of Malacca, a key chokepoint connecting the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean,” Pratik Dattani, an advisory member to the London-based think tank Bridge India, told The Epoch Times in an email.

“By controlling this, India or the U.S. could, in theory, block Chinese movement across the Strait, cutting off China’s major energy routes from the Middle East.”

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) are a chain of 572 islands close to the shipping channel of the Malacca Strait, which lies between Malaysia and Indonesia. While only 38 of the islands are inhabited, they constitute 30 percent of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

They increase India’s maritime boundary deep into the Indian Ocean and, because of their proximity to the Malacca Strait, ensure that the maritime trade necessarily passes through India’s EEZ.

“These islands are strategically located to cast an eye on the critical shipping lanes of China, thereby giving India critical, much-needed leverage,” Harsh Pant, director of studies and head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, told The Epoch Times on a chat platform.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that 80 percent of the global trade by volume and 60 percent by value goes by sea, and 60 percent of this passes through the Strait of Malacca.

“Its waters are particularly critical for China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, all of which rely on the Strait of Malacca, which connects the South China Sea and, by extension, the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean,” CSIS said in a report.

Girish Kant Pandey, a political analyst and an associate professor at the Department of Defense Studies from Gorakhpur University in central India, told The Epoch Times by telephone that 80 percent of China’s oil trade and 60 percent of its overall trade passes through the Malacca Strait and, therefore, through India’s EEZ.

“In case of a future attack by China, India and its allies can control Chinese aggression by stopping its maritime trade coming from its sea territory,” said Pandey, adding that “closing entry to Malacca would force China to take a longer detour, which would significantly increase the goods’ price.”

Epoch Times Photo
This aerial photograph taken on Sept. 22, 2018 shows Boat Island in the Andaman Islands, a remote Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. (HARI KUMAR/AFP via Getty Images)

India’s Renewed Attention

Since a bloody clash on June 15 between Indian and Chinese militaries in the Himalayan border region of Galwan, India has deployed forces to various hotspots on the continental as well as the maritime borders.

The country has also shown renewed attention to developing the ANI islands economically and strategically. Indian media reported on Aug. 25 that the country is upgrading its two airstrips in the ANI for military use.

“The two island territories will be like the new aircraft carriers for India, extending the navy’s reach in the region far from the mainland,” a tri-service commander told the Indian daily newspaper Hindustan Times.

Dattani said this will help India secure the Bay of Bengal up to the Malacca Straits.

“It is now an urgent requirement for India in order to counter a series of bold moves by China, but needs to be part of a coherent and ambitious maritime security plan,” he said.

The Indian media also reported that the upgrade is being done urgently to counter China, which is pushing Thailand to build a canal that aims to slice through the Malay peninsula, creating an alternative to the Malacca Strait.

On Aug. 10, Modi inaugurated a 1,429-mile (2300-km) undersea fiber-optic cable (OFC) project connecting its coastal metro city, Chennai, with ANI’s capital, Port Blair.

“This has been in the works for some time and will help with real-time communications with the islands. But it is a small part of a much larger maritime strategy India needs to implement in conjunction with the QUAD and other regional partners,” Dattani said. QUAD is a quadrilateral security dialogue between India, Japan, United States, and Australia.

A day before the launch of OFC, Modi said 12 ANI islands have also been selected for the expansion of “high impact” projects to convert the islands into a hub of the ocean-based economy and an important place for maritime startups.

The country is already expanding the airport at Port Blair and also is speeding to build a 186-mile (300-km) national highway through the islands.

Pant said that in the past, the development of the islands has suffered because of a lack of attention.

“Though they host India’s only theater command, in the past, their degradation has been a casualty of bureaucratic delays and inter-service rivalry. But there is a new urgency today in light of worsening Sino-Indian ties,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
A U.S. Navy crewman pulls a fuel pipe across the deck of USS Kitty Hawk (CV63) aircraft carrier in the Bay of Bengal, during the Malabar exercise on Sept. 7, 2007. (DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP via Getty Images)

Opening Islands to Friendly Navies

Experts said the islands can be developed into an advanced military base for India and its partners in the Indo-Pacific.

“India can develop Andaman Nicobar Islands as an advanced base for future contingency, keeping in mind its strategic location in the maritime geography. We already have our tri-services command there, and we are already engaged in Malabar Exercise there, along with Japan, U.S., and Australia,” Pandey said.

The Malabar Exercise has been a joint naval exercise among India, the United States, and Japan, and Australia joined this year. 

“China can take over the 14 Pacific islands that are already under its heavy debt and change their navigation policy. Australia’s trade routes pass through these islands, and that’s why Australia is becoming more aggressive against China. That’s one reason why Australia also participates in the Malabar Exercise,” said Pandey.

In a June 26 policy brief on leveraging the strategic potential of ANI, Sujan R. Chinoy, the director-general of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a think tank funded by the Indian Ministry of Defense, said India should open the islands to the friendly navies of the United States, Japan, and Australia.

“When it comes to the U.S., none of its naval ships or aircraft have been given access to the A&N Islands in the past. This is a matter which needs to be rectified in light of the fact that India and the U.S. have a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership and the U.S. is today India’s biggest defense partner,” Chinoy said.

Pant said the islands can become India’s most important outpost to project power in the Indo-Pacific, but New Delhi will have to work with like-minded countries.

“With the U.S., high-end technology cooperation will be key to develop ANI into an advanced naval outpost, especially one which can be used to track Chinese submarine movement in the Indian Ocean,” Pant said.

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