Historically, great and emerging maritime powers have employed the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to exert authority in the Indian Ocean and as an essential base for eastward expeditions. Rajendra Chola I, ruler of the Chola empire, first used ANI to their tactical advantage. After seizing modern-day Sri Lanka, Chola’s Navy used the Andaman Islands as a base to launch successful raids on the docks of the Srivijaya empire, which was located in modern-day Indonesia.
The British and Japanese, too, made effective use of the Andaman Islands to advance their strategic objectives. The British Empire maintained a substantial presence in the Andaman Islands, which it used to establish its military footprint throughout the continent, even beyond the Indian Ocean. During World War II, the Japanese invaded the islands to combat the British and expand their position in the region. Imperial Japan also used the islands to launch operations against Burma and Northeast India.
Historically, these islands have been crucial to nations expanding their naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The Andaman Islands connect the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean and oversee one of the enormous commercial shipping lanes in the world. In addition, they serve as a crucial chokepoint and commercial route for goods transiting in and out of the Indian Ocean to East and Southeast Asia.
A combination of economic and geopolitical concerns has considerably raised the strategic importance of the Bay of Bengal and its littorals. The A&N Islands, strategically located and more significant than just several island states, provide an advantage in India’s defence and strategic considerations. Between Duncan’s Passage and Ten Degree Channel lie the Islands. The Preparis Channel and Six Degree Channel are located north and south of the island chain. These passages are an important trade route for boats travelling to Southeast and East Asia. Thirty per cent of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone comprises 572 islands, just 38 of which are inhabited (EEZ).
The Andaman Sea’s Six Degree and Ten Degree Channels, which link to the Malacca Strait, are critical to the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) that transport global commerce, notably energy trade, between Asia and Africa in the Pacific. The A&N Islands are strategically placed at the intersection of the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean, making them an essential fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific strategic concept. This archipelago has the capabilities to be crucial in the escalating naval war involving India and China in the twenty-first century.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore share the Malacca Strait, which links the Andaman Sea of the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. The Strait of Malacca, which links the Indian Ocean to the South China Maritime, is the shortest maritime route between India and China and hence one of the busiest commercial passes. The Malacca Strait has traditionally served as the principal transit route for products bound for Asia and other rapidly developing nations.
These SLOCs transport up to 75% of China’s oil imports from the Gulf region, becoming China’s primary energy conduit. Alternative routes close to the Malacca Strait, such as the Lombok and Sunda Straits, are longer and need around five days more. The Chinese presence in the Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea should alarm Indian officials. Several of China’s most considerable efforts imperil Indian interests, particularly in and around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
As a component of its Maritime Silk Road initiative, China has financed the construction of new ports and the renovation of existing ports in various countries along the IOR. The Trilateral Highway Project in Myanmar and the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka represent China’s Debt Trap Diplomacy. The present Indian government has acknowledged the prospect of a substantial Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.
Prime Minister Modi has taken the initiative and is paying great attention to India’s complete maritime security, namely the Development of ANI through the Act East Policy. To counter China, India should employ the Act East Policy to focus on the comprehensive development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands via a combination of strategic investments and a more significant military presence.
Following the 1999 Kargil war, the Group of Ministers authorised the establishment of an integrated Command in May 2001, following the evaluations of the Kargil assessment committee. ANC established the very first Joint Operational Command in October 2001. The eventual objective of establishing this command is to foster cooperation among the defence services – i.e. Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Coast Guard, in the challenging operating conditions of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The responsibility of the ANC includes “defence of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” which encompasses its waterways, airspace, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and defence of future offshore stations when they become functional (Roy & Cawasji, 2017). The ANC conducts defence diplomacy regularly via joint naval exercises with its maritime counterparts. In the Andaman Sea, examples are CORPAT, MILAN, and SIMBEX. In addition to marine patrols, the ANC conducts patrols to fight arms trafficking, narcotics trafficking, piracy, and poaching. The INS KOHASSA airport in the northernmost part of these islands is strategically significant.
Thus, according to the Headquarters of the Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC), to Enhance Its Military Capability with the Upcoming Commissioning of INS Kohassa, the incorporation of this airfield will significantly improve The Andaman and Nicobar Command’s (ANC) potential to conduct operations from all regions of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (PIB, 2019). The INS KOHASSA and several other airbases in the ANC fulfil India’s role as a great security provider of the region and increase the ANC’s ability for non-traditional security engagements as well.
Moreover, the rising Chinese dominance in the area reinforces the strategic significance of the ANI in the modern world. China’s fascination with the ANI arises from the strategic deviation’s attraction. The propagation of the “String of Pearls” strategy has prompted a tremendous rush to establish a marine footprint in the region. China has gained a foothold in the region’s quest for energy resources, obtaining a foothold at critical junctures like Chittagong, Hambantota, and Gwadar, which is what it thinks will secure its essential energy requirements.
Equivalent harbours in Pakistan and Myanmar can connect the Chinese mainland to the Indian Ocean Region by land transit instead of the Malacca Strait. The overland route to the IOR shortens the distance and allows China to avoid the “Malacca Dilemma,” or dependence on a canal that may be blocked or controlled.
The Indo-Pacific, the problem of Indian Ocean geopolitical dominance, and the hunt for the strategic ramifications of its chokepoints have attracted a significant deal of critical interest from throughout the globe. China has placed a higher emphasis on dominating the area around ANI and has engaged in several security dialogues since 2016 to display its sturdy security dynamics and gain an advantage in any future strategic confrontation, as it did in the Galwan Valley skirmish with India.
With ANI’s superior geographical position, the Indo-US joint diplomacy may exploit it as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” to transmit soft and hard power throughout the seas and islands. Along with the US’s advance into the seas and islands, the Communication, Compatibility, and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with India is the first, enabling the Indian military to purchase cryptologic technology from the US.
In 2016, India also made operational the Logistical Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which allows the US Navy to replenish supplies at Indian Navy logistical sites. India’s “masterful inactivity and benign indifference” policy has reduced the strategic relevance of the islands in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). While considering steps to promote the strategic partnership, the US-India Enhanced Cooperation Act specifies that the US should endeavour to boost both countries’ capacity to meet emerging mutual challenges, increase security cooperation, and extend joint military exercises.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) provide an ideal setting for establishing such military understanding, promoting diplomacy between nations to increase mutual capacity to address new challenges in the Indo-Asian-Pacific region. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have drawn foreign forces from across the region for military drills. India has shown that ANI may be utilised to enhance humanitarian aid in the region. ANI has accounted for multilateral dynamics despite the foundations of a strong democracy and extensive adherence to rules-based international law, primarily concerned with strategic interactions and security dynamics.
Suppose the emphasis of all exercises is on security and humanitarian operations. In that case, it illustrates that nations can accommodate the ANI to establish a range of reforms to accommodate the bilateral and maritime components of relations among the islands. It will be critical to watch how maritime security dynamics alter in the following years.
It is unclear if rising disagreements over maritime security and control in the IOR and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will result in military or violent clashes. The IOR’s proximity to the bulk of the world’s nations provides concern. ANI-affiliated nations are fighting for the sovereignty of this territory, and ANI recognition will continue to oppose the Chinese invasion.
A situation similar to that which prevails in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait is rigorously avoided. India has continued to profit from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by conducting maritime exercises and monitoring. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have a substantial advantage over the eastern entry to the IOR, and monitoring allows them to analyse their resources and gain an advantage over other nations.
As a recommendation, India should strengthen its ties with Australia over the employment of the Cocos Islands and the ANI in a robust security framework. Despite substantial shared interests, the strategic alliance between the two countries remains underdeveloped. The disparity between India’s and Australia’s priority theatres, with India’s in the Indian Ocean and Australia’s in the Pacific, is a cause of contention in the cooperation. If New Delhi views the Pacific as its secondary priority, Canberra views the Indian Ocean as its secondary body of water. Due to capacity limits on both sides, it is challenging to deploy resources in secondary locations of interest.
A collaborative and synergetic projection towards utilising their island properties in the Indian Ocean might provide a capability to overcome these obstacles. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are located close to the Malacca Strait, whereas Cocos Islands are located close to the Indonesian channels of Sunda, Lombok, and Ombai-Wetar. These channels serve as the inlets and outlets for the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. These islands have tactical, economic, and communicative advantages in the prevalent Indo-Pacific geopolitical battle. MDA (Maritime Domain Awareness) activities are the key advantage of these islands.
While the Malacca Strait is the primary economic route connecting the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean economies, the other straits of the Indonesian archipelago offer other routes for surface and sub-surface vessels. The Indian Navy has confirmed the growing interest of Chinese naval vessels in the Indian Ocean, where China is reportedly using submersible drone technology for oceanographic research. Beijing conducts similar studies in the Pacific Ocean.
Incorporating the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Cocos Islands would permit larger and deeper MDA activities across the strait. P-8 aircraft are now stationed in India and Australia for reconnaissance missions and observation activities.
A concerted cooperation effort using island territory via bilateral access agreements should allow India and Australia to expand their presence and MDA operations beyond the limits of their different capabilities. India will be able to monitor a greater area encompassing the Malacca and Indonesian straits, from the northern Andaman and Nicobar Islands to southern Cocos Islands. Tracing submarines in the open ocean is a complex and expensive endeavour that demands enormous resources. Chokepoints enable the tracking of submarines, making islands vital assets. These islands provide coordinated and synchronised anti-submarine warfare operations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
While Australia has staging possibilities for surveillance missions at Darwin, Australia, and Butterworth, Malaysia, exposure to the Andaman and Nicobar islands will place the country in the epicentre of the Indian Ocean. Australia would be able to sustain and expand its presence in the Indian Ocean to conduct more prolonged and more complex operations. Access to these islands would not only benefit Australia’s interests in the eastern Indian Ocean, but it would also provide a foundation for expanding Australia’s military participation in the remainder of the Indian Ocean, a challenge for Australia’s Indian Ocean policy.
Similarly, India stands to gain strategy from access to the Cocos Islands, expanding its influence and reach beyond the Indonesian Straits and into the Pacific. A joint effort to use these islands sends an important message. Collaboration between India and Australia on a collection of strategically essential islands traditionally closed to each other sends an important political message across the Indo-Pacific, signalling increased strategic trust between two key countries in the Indo-Pacific.
In addition, Australia is expected to join in the MALABAR naval exercises (India-Japan-US) shortly, consistent with the Quad’s developing and frequent diplomatic interactions. India and Australia may initiate synchronised patrols by flying their respective P-8s between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Cocos Islands using the AUSINDEX. This will allow both sides to explore logistical and administrative concerns, laying the framework for future more complex and lengthier operations. This would need political unanimity at a high level.
As the intensity of geopolitical rivalry in Asia increases and the United States advances closer to its boundaries, maintaining equilibrium between China and other Asian states falls more on the continent’s middle powers.
Similar to how Japan and Australia are better suited to assert authority in the Western and Southern Pacific, India and Australia, two very distinct democratic middle powers with the most established blue-water capacity in the Indian Ocean, are better suited to assume this responsibility in the Indian Ocean Region. By assuming this duty, they will also be able to combine the forces of nations such as the United States and France with those of other states committed to preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific more effectively. However, India and Australia must first develop their bilateral strategic links, maritime security, and economic cooperation with more determination and urgency.
[Photo by Indian Ministry of External Affairs]
*Aakarshan Singh is a postgraduate student of International Relations, pursuing MA in Diplomacy, Law and Business, specializing in Defense and National Security Studies, and South-East Asian Studies from the School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Delhi NCR.