With every passing day, the Indo-Pacific is gaining traction in geostrategic, geopolitical, and as well as in terms of geo-economics. Due to its huge geography, it is increasingly becoming the most dynamic region for any country mainly because of its trade and strategic choke points of the region. India, being the major regional player in South Asia has a massive role to play in the region. It claims to be a part of the Indo-Pacific region mainly because of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. These islands are present at the end of the Indian Ocean and to the East of the islands is the Pacific Ocean. This geographical location allows India to stretch its influence in both the oceans. These islands are a chain of 836 out of which only 38 are inhabited and were being used as a small naval base before the Indian possession at the time of partition in 1947.
Port Blair is the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands union territory. It was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War and was later returned to the British during the time when Lord Mountbatten was the Viceroy of India. It is a market town with a sawmill, several local museums, and an airport; tourism is important. Although affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the port city survived and acted as a base for relief efforts.
Understanding the matter better
These islands are now governed by the Indian government and have deployed a tri-services command which means that the naval, air and ground forces are actively present. This presence could enhance the maritime surveillance and operational capabilities of India in the Eastern Indian Ocean as it merges into the Pacific Ocean. For India, it stretches the area of influence from the shores of Africa to that of America. The Bay of Bengal is a common maritime space between India and Southeast Asia. It comprises 30 percent of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
In 2015, 100,000 million USD worth plan to develop the islands into India’s first maritime hub. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited these islands for the very first time inaugurating several development projects.
Accelerated Sino-Indian Rivalry
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are present close to the strategically vital Malacca Strait and the East-West shipping route which connects Europe and Africa with that of Asia. For trade connectivity, the sea needs to be secured. This gives India an upper hand because India has tri-services command in this region. The competition between China and India has escalated due to India’s growing military cooperation with the United States (U.S.) and other Quad countries including Japan and Australia.
This route is strategically important for China in terms of trade. In recent years, Beijing seems trying to expand its influence in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to overcome its Malacca Dilemma which is China’s fear of a maritime blockade at the Strait of Malacca which is an important choke point for Chinese oil supply.
As the 21st century maritime Silk Road ambitions have fueled apprehensions about freedom of navigation in these waters. So, it attracted the attention of the Indian government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to these islands. Now India is considered as a net security provider in the Indo- Pacific region. After the Ladakh standoff with China in 2020, now India has a plan for additional forces, warships, aircraft, and missile batteries. There are reports of naval air stations being built in the region by Indian government. However, as a sovereign state with autonomous strategic interests, India always considered the Indian Ocean as its backbone.
New Delhi’s explanation of the Indian Ocean is, as Prime Minister Modi said at the Shangri-La dialogue that “from the shores of Africa to that of Americas.” The politics of the Indo-Pacific has been changing at a faster speed ever since Chinese President Xi Jinping publicized BRI and especially the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, which actually enhanced India’s role in the region and the race between the two countries in increasing influence.
Under Modi’s Leadership, India is cooperating aggressively with other powers such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S., etc. to counter the Chinese presence in the region. New Delhi’s role in the region is so vital that the U.S. changed the name of its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific command by recognizing India’s role in countering China. The U.S.State Department document named free and open Indo-Pacific claims that the authoritarian powers seek to advance their narrow-minded interests at others expense and the U.S. is strengthening and extending partnerships with countries that share their values.
In the early stages of its Indo-Pacific dialogue, India’s sole challenge was to define and lay out New Delhi’s approach to the new paradigm. This vision of India leads to its entry in the Quad alliance. Quad envisioned the concept of Democratic Peace that includes both economic and geostrategic interests in the region commonly shared by the member countries. Since its establishment, the alliance is capturing momentum since it has a parallel joint military exercise named ‘Exercise Malabar’ to counter any future military threat to the region from China.
The multilateral grouping is against the hegemonic control of the Indo-Pacific region which has important maritime trade routes connecting most of the Asian, South-East Asian and Far East Asian countries. While New Delhi today has become an important and foremost pillar of the Indo-Pacific construction, it primarily fought to define the significant role within its political framework as Australia, Japan, and the United States publicized their visualizations and approaches. New Delhi eventually embraced the concept and put forward its own vision through Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018.
The even-tempered waters of the Andaman Sea challenge the always ongoing threat sensitivity that disturbs the trading connectivity through these water bodies literally on a daily basis. War in the predictable sense might be a distantly possibility but that does not mean that the Indian Armed Forces are not organized for any possibility. Threat perceptions take into account a battle for the control of these islands.
While on the one hand, the Island territories make for an enormously useful Indian attending post for the larger IOR, the distance of these islands from the mainland represents their principal insecurity making them defenseless to conventional and non-conventional threats. In August 2011, a Chinese vessel cloaked as a fishing trawler was identified by the Indian Navy just off the Andaman Islands. Indian authorities concluded that the mysterious company was on a spy mission and was most likely being commanded by personnel of the People’s Liberation Army’s intelligence units. Serious uncertainties surrounding China’s maritime purposes in the Indian Ocean have provoked an unusual focused effort on the part of India to gather up forces deployed in defense of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The strategic position of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has the capacity to deal with more than just the sovereignty of the states. The Indian Navy’s endless watch is not just about protecting terrains and territories. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands overlap the busiest trade routes in the world and the responsibility of keeping them safe and clean is one of the main responsibilities of the Indian Navy. But the dishonesty of the situation is that international waters around these territories have to be kept safe in coordination with navies of other nations, including China, an indisputable maritime rival of New Delhi.
By understanding the fact how much energy and security matter to both India and China, so now securing the sea lanes of communication is a ferocious struggle where confrontation is always just a fraction away. The passage of billions of dollars worth of trade does not deduct the threat of piracy in the Bay of Bengal and the attached straits, one that the Indian Navy has become all too aware of within the Arabian Sea.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands bear greater challenges to their internal security through non-conventional threats such as illegal relocation from coastal states of the Bay of Bengal, stealing of marine and forest resources, arms and narcotics trafficking through uninhabited islands and natural disasters. In recent years, several such efforts and cases have created a sense of insecurity in the area. These visibly sponsored security threats have now for long raised serious questions both in terms of determinable fatalities to life and property and non-quantifiable losses to national will and ditch on rare economic resources.
Written by Muhammad Ali Baig and Maira Mahmood
The author is a Research Associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), Pakistan. He is a Ph.D. scholar at the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR) at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), and a distinguished graduate of National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad, Pakistan.
Maira Mahmood is an International Relations student at Bahria University, Islamabad, Pakistan. She is also a Research Intern at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), Pakistan. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.