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The strategic location of these islands demands New Delhi’s full attention as it can open new vistas for India’s maritime strategy

by Harsh V Pant and Sohini Bose

Earlier this month, defence minister Rajnath Singh visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for two days to assess the command’s operational readiness and infrastructure advancements. On his route to the archipelago’s southernmost islands, he stopped at Car Nicobar Island and Campbell Bay to assess the ground situation and interacted with personnel at Indian Naval Ship (INS) Baaz – India’s southernmost naval aviation station. The penultimate destination on his tour was Indira Point, which overlooks the Grand Channel or the Six Degree Channel, a significant shipping path used for international marine commerce passing from the West to the Straits of Malacca and vice versa. The prominent presence of the

It is critical to consider the visit not as a one-time occurrence, but rather as the latest in a series of occurrences in recent years. Singh’s tour of the island chain is reminiscent of previous visits by Nirmala Sitharaman in January 2019, and Manohar Parrikar in August 2016 and November 2015. Aside from formal ceremonies, the goal of all three missions was to assess the operational readiness of the Andaman and Nicobar Command and meet with troops stationed on these islands. Subhash Ramarao Bhamre, the defence minister of state, made a similar visit in 2018. These recurring visits validate the island chain’s rising strategic importance for New Delhi, which has been supplemented by its

In 2019, an exclusive 5,650 crore military infrastructure development plan was finalised to strengthen the capabilities of the Andaman and Nicobar Command, which includes the stationing of additional military units, cruisers, aircraft, missile batteries, and infantry soldiers on the islands. In parallel, the Andaman and Nicobar Command is developing a comprehensive plan for “force accretion” by 2027, which includes a phased increase in Army manpower and assets through the improvement of the existing 108 Mountain Brigade and the formation of a new infantry battalion, among other upgrades.

Following India’s standoff with China in Ladakh, these plans gained urgency in order to counter China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. Following that, in 2021, there were reports of runway extensions at the naval air bases INS Kohassa in Shibpur and INS Baaz in Campbell Bay to facilitate heavy aircraft operations. India has also participated in attempts to maintain joint security on the islands, such as the Japan-US “fishhook” or Sound Surveillance System, a network of sensors designed to track submarines. This will act as a deterrent to Chinese submarines in the Andaman Sea and deep South China Sea, especially if like-minded states collaborate on intelligence sharing.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which separate the Bay of Bengal from the Andaman Sea, are strategically located to provide maritime stability in both of these crucial areas. The Indian Navy has highlighted these as “key areas of interest” in the Indian Maritime Security Strategy. The militarization of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is also required to safeguard the several shipping lanes that it crosses, as blockades at these chokepoints would hurt both domestic and global business. The islands are also perfectly positioned for India to conduct surveillance and monitoring activities in the Malacca Strait to ensure freedom of navigation in these areas. This is especially useful in light of China’s forceful efforts to solve its Malacca Dilemma – Beijing’s fear of a naval blockade in the Malacca Strait.

While it is true that India’s defence postures on the islands are mostly motivated by China’s assertive behaviour in the Indian Ocean, it would be incorrect to believe that all of its efforts are motivated by fear. Rather, they should be read in the context of the government pursuing increased prominence in the Indo-Pacific, and therefore attempting to leverage the islands’ strategic position to emerge as the region’s net security provider. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are near to Southeast Asia (including countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which are essential to the country’s Indo-Pacific vision.

As a result, the Andaman and Nicobar Command’s Coordinated Patrol (CORPAT) exercises with various Southeast Asian countries, as well as the global MILAN exercise it coordinates, aid in the realisation of India’s Act East and Act Indo-Pacific goals.

India is also attempting to develop the islands as the country’s first maritime hub and a transhipment port for the area. After all, the islands are positioned near the convergence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, making them a perfect entrance into the larger waters of the Indo-Pacific. The strategic placement of these islands necessitates complete attention from New Delhi, as it has the potential to open up new avenues for India’s marine policy.

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