The killing of an American citizen John Allen Chau, allegedly a Christian missionary, on the North Sentinel Island of the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain in November 2018 reinforced the traditional image of these islands and their environs as an isolated reserve for a small tribal population in a pristine natural environment. The idea that the Andamans could be a commercial hub or a vital geopolitical site barely figures in the Indian public discourse. But that could be changing. Chau’s death comes amidst the re-emergence of the island chain and the waters to its east as one of the key zones of contestation in the global maritime space.
These waters, known as the Andaman Sea, are likely to figure with increasing prominence in India’s national security and foreign policy debates. The year 2018 saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulate India’s vision for the ‘Indo-Pacific’ in his address to the Shangri-La dialogue the annual forum that brings together the defence establishments of Asia, Europe and the Pacific. The Andaman Sea is at the very heart of this new geography – the Indo-Pacific – extending from the east coast of Africa to the southern shores of Japan.
The novelty of the Indo-Pacific lies in recognizing the growing strategic and economic interdependence of the Pacific and Indian Ocean littorals that were seen as separate theatres until recently. That said, the Indo-Pacific is also a sum of its many sub-regions that include the East China Sea, South China Sea and South Pacific to the east of the Malacca Straits as well as the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and the waters of Africa to the west. What India does in these sub-regions is far more important than the abstract debates on the Indo-Pacific.
The Andaman Sea, separated from the Bay of Bengal by the island chain, flows into the Malacca Strait that links the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The northernmost part of Andaman Island is less than 50 km away from Myanmar’s Coco Islands and the southernmost ‘Indira Point’ in Nicobar is less than 180 km from Aceh in Indonesia. Essentially elliptical in shape, with an area of over 600, 000 km2, the sea accounts for a significant portion of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The countries sharing its basin are India, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore, which sits at the centre of the Malacca Strait, is a very much involved actor in the politics of the Andaman Sea.
Like the South China Sea to the East of the Malacca Strait, the Andaman Sea is vital to the flow of global commerce between Asia and the world. Dominance over these two seas has been critical for great power hegemony in the Indian and Pacific Oceans over the centuries. As the Indo-Pacific becomes the new theatre of great power contestation in the 21st century, the Andaman Sea will no longer be the tranquil backwater that it has been for the last two centuries. That great power rivalry will be shaped in part by the policies of the Andaman littoral states. India, which long neglected the island chain as well as the Andaman Sea, is now being compelled to pay attention.
The Andaman Sea formed part of the great power politics played out in the larger Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. The arrival of the European powers into this region at the close of the 15th century extended their rivalries at home into the waters of the eastern Indian Ocean. Over the next three hundred years, the Europeans asserted control over various territories within the region. By the 18th century, the British, Dutch, and French each had territorial possessions in South and Southeast Asia. The Andaman Sea inevitably became a flashpoint in the battle for naval supremacy in the east between rival European powers. If controlling the sea lines of communication became a critical element of that rivalry, island bases located at critical choke points held the key to success.
In the mid-18th century, the Seven Year War with the French highlighted the British Raj’s need for an ‘all-year base’ in the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Straits. The British established two such outposts – one in 1786 at the Malayan island of Penang and another in 1789 on the Andaman Islands. The East India Company dispatched Lieutenant Archibald Blair (the eponymous founder of Port Blair), a hydrographer, to the islands in 1789 to survey the Andaman Islands and the surrounding waters.
After the end of the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the 19th century, Britain became the sole European naval power in the region and the Indian Ocean became, in effect, a ‘British lake’. Accordingly, the Islands remained British territory until the mid-twentieth century. Paradoxically, as it gained dominance over the entire Indian Ocean, the strategic significance of the Andaman Islands seemed to decline. From being a critical base for power projection, the Andamans turned into a prison house for those unwanted by the Raj on the Indian mainland.
The British treatment of the Andamans as a remote outpost was rudely shattered by Imperial Japan. After ousting Britain from Malaya and Singapore in 1942, Japan raced through Burma towards the northeastern gates of India. At the same time, it occupied the Andaman Islands and set up a provisional government led by Subhash Chandra Bose. It needed every ounce of Britain’s political will and the expansive resources of undivided India to roll back the Japanese aggression in the final years of the Second World War.
Although Imperial Japan reminded the world of the enduring strategic significance of the Andaman Sea, the littoral would return to anonymity soon after the war. A number of factors contributed to this renewed marginalization of the Andaman Sea. The confrontation between America and the Soviet Union that enveloped the world was concentrated in the Atlantic, Europe and North East Asia. The Indian Ocean and its seas saw the steady diminution of their strategic salience during the Cold War. The inward economic orientation of India, Burma and South Asia also saw these countries pay little attention to their maritime possibilities. However the Malacca Straits, linking the Andaman Sea and the South China Sea, remained the main artery of sea transportation between the two halves of Eurasia.
But the galloping economic growth of Asia since the 1980s, expanded the commercial importance of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) passing through the Malacca Straits and the Andaman Sea. The rise of China as an economic power has raised its commercial stakes in the SLOCs between East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Like all trading powers before it, China has inevitably turned to building a large navy and becoming a great maritime power. This has inevitably raised the strategic value of the Malacca Straits and the Andaman Sea for Beijing. The other powers, including India, increasingly concerned about China’s political assertiveness, have begun to respond.
After it opened its economy in the late 1970s and transformed the regions on the Pacific coast, China turned its attention to the development of its interior regions in the west and southwest. The ‘Go West’ strategy also involved linking these provinces to the neighbouring regions of Central Asia, South Asia and South East Asia. Under this strategy the Yunnan province in southwest China was visualized as the hub connecting China to the subcontinent as well as South East Asia. That imagination was founded on the historic Southern Silk Road that once connected Yunnan to its neighbouring regions in the south. It was also necessitated by the logic of finding ocean access to Yunnan and other landlocked provinces in its southwest, whose economies were now growing rapidly. Many of the ambitious projects undertaken under this project got eventually integrated into China’s Belt and Road Initiative announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013.
A number of them promise to transform the geography of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The first is the nearly 1200 km long oil and gas pipeline system between Kyaukpyu island on the Arakan coast of Burma and Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. The pipeline system, operational since 2013-14, moves oil and natural gas imported from the Middle East into the landlocked Yunnan province. In October 2018, China Railway Group Ltd and Myanmar Railways signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the prospects for a railway line from Muse on the Sino-Burmese border to Mandalay in Burma. Muse is Burma’s largest overland trading hub. Mandalay is central Myanmar’s commercial centre and the country’s second largest city.
The railway between the two cities is expected to be extended eventually to Kyakpyu and Mandalay. The idea of a railway system across the length and breadth of Burma is not new. The British Raj in India initiated plans to build such a railway system but never had the resources to proceed. The railway and associated road and industrial zones are expected to become part of a massive China-Burma Economic Corridor, not unlike the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. If the Gwadar port is the crown jewel of the CPEC, a planned deep sea port at Kyaukpyu acquires a similar status in the CBEC. In November 2018, Chinese companies signed the contract to develop a US$1.5 billion port at Kyaukpyu.
Further south is China’s game-changing Kra Canal, a proposed waterway connecting the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand. The idea of a canal cutting across the Thai-Malay isthmus to link the two seas on its flanks and bypass the Malacca Strait has been debated for nearly a century. But considerations of cost have long prevented anyone embarking on it. But China perhaps has the ambition and resources to get it done. Beijing certainly appears to have persuaded Bangkok to start exploring the possibility. Taken together these projects are bound to dramatically raise China’s economic profile in the Andaman Sea. India which had all the geographic advantages in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea is now scrambling to catch up.
In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an ambitious plan to transform the islands into India’s ‘first maritime hub’ with a focus on developing ports, shipping infrastructure and tourism. After decades of keeping the islands off limits to the world, Delhi is now eager to bring in domestic and foreign investors into the islands and liberalize the visa regime. Until now the balance between environmental preservation, tribal welfare, national security and economic development was totally skewed in favour of isolating the islands. Delhi is now finding a new balance between the multiple considerations. That Allen Chau has been able to sneak into the North Sentinel Island and the mounting objections of the green groups against Delhi’s plans for developing the island chain underlines the tough task ahead for India.
Even as it copes with the domestic challenges, India has begun to seek international cooperation in the development of the Andaman islands. During Modi’s first visit to Indonesia in the summer of 2018, the two sides released a comprehensive document on a ‘Shared Vision of Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’, covering several aspects of cooperation such as economics, security and tourism. The document particularly mentions the sea in the context of improving tourism and specifically earmarks Sabang port in Sumatra for development. In fact, Sabang is likely to be a focal point of India-Indonesia activities in the Andaman Sea.
India is also looking towards Singapore and Thailand to develop joint initiatives for the Andaman Sea littoral. India, which traditionally sought to exclude the extra-regional powers from the Indian Ocean is now eager to collaborate with such partners like Japan and France. The difficulties of unilateral balancing against China are real, given the growing gap in the economic power of the two countries. China’s economy is now nearly five times larger than that of India.
As China’s economic interest has grown in the Indian Ocean, so has its natural imperative to secure those interests. Over the last decade, China has steadily expanded its maritime presence in the Indian Ocean littoral through continuous deployment of its naval forces, arms sales, creating bases and access facilities, military diplomacy, cultivation of special political relations among other things. This broad-based trend in China’s geopolitical evolution is also reflected in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. China’s claimed vulnerability in the Malacca Straits, the principal channel through which its Indian Ocean trade passes, has reinforced the case for Beijing’s need to prevent negative developments in the Andaman Sea on the western flank of the straits.
China’s growing military partnerships in the Andaman Sea are raising India’s concerns about the potential shift in the regional military balance in favour of China. Of particular concern for Delhi are China’s sale of submarines in the Andaman littoral. These sales mark a big boost in Beijing’s relationship with the littoral navies. In 2017, Beijing concluded a deal with Bangkok on the construction of a submarine for the Thai navy worth more than $400 million dollars. This follows the delivery of two submarines to Bangladesh at the end of 2016. Like with Bangladesh, China has had a long-standing arms supply relationship with Burma. Two Chinese frigates are part of the Burmese navy. China conducts bilateral and multilateral naval exercises in the Andaman Sea and Malacca Straits.
The importance of the slow but definitive rise of China’s maritime and naval influence in the Andaman Sea has not gone unnoticed in Delhi. Despite the talk of ‘looking east’ and ‘acting east’, Delhi has tended to neglect the implications of the changing military dynamic in the waters around the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain. Although it had set up a tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) in Port Blair way back in 2001, Delhi seemed to have little interest in making it an effective element in its maritime doctrine and strategy.
The NDA government has taken greater interest in resourcing the ANC and strengthening the military infrastructure on the island. In 2017 the navy announced the extension of the naval station INS Baaz’s runway, as well as the establishment of three forward operating bases at Kamorta in Nicobar and Diglipur and Campbell Bay in Andaman, respectively. The same year, the ANC conducted the Defence of Andaman and Nicobar Exercise or DANX which aimed to test and certify operational procedures. In 2018, the Indian Air Force (IAF) declared that combat aircraft and other assets would be permanently based at the ANC to enhance combat efficiency.
Besides strengthening the national posture at the ANI chain, Delhi has stepped up its military diplomacy in the Andaman Sea. It currently conducts bilateral Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) with Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia in the Andaman Sea. Alongside Singapore, India hosts the Singapore India Maritime Bilateral Exercise (SIMBEX) in the waters to the east and west of the Malacca Straits. In November 2018 the 25th edition of SIMBEX was held in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. It saw the largest ever participation of two navies, with several types of naval and aerial aircraft involved in ‘multidimensional’ drills. At the 3rd Defence Ministers’ Dialogue, which followed the SIMBEX 2018 exercise, the ministers of India and Singapore noted a new trilateral exercise with Singapore and Thailand, set to be launched next year.
Meanwhile, India and Indonesia have agreed in 2018 to step up economic and security cooperation in the Andaman Sea. India has agreed to participate in developing port infrastructure at Sabang in the Sumatra Island. An Indian naval ship visited Sabang at the end of 2018. This was the first such visit. The ANC also hosts the MILAN multilateral exercise, a flagship endeavour, since 1995. The most recent edition in 2018 involved 16 countries.
The once tranquil Andaman Sea has begun to acquire a new strategic vitality. After prolonged neglect, India is taking steps to protect its natural primacy in the Andaman Sea on the economic and security fronts. But India’s pace might be too slow to cope with the scale of China’s strategic ambition, its purposeful policies for shaping the future of the Andaman Sea, and the speed of implementing mega infrastructure projects in the littoral. The Modi government has taken a number of steps – in bits and pieces – over the last few years. What the government needs is the articulation at the highest level of a solid set of goals for both the islands and the Andaman Sea and a road map to achieve them. It will involve big trade-offs between environmental protection and development as well as between the traditional closed nature of the security system for the Andamans and potentially open architecture that would involve significant international cooperation.
But the biggest challenge is in changing Delhi’s mindset. The continentalism of the Delhi establishment finds it hard in general to focus on the maritime imperative. Even more problematic is the persistent imagination of the ANI being an ‘outpost’ rather than a hub that will allow India to expand its economic footprint and project its military power. Prime ministers of India rarely travel to the Andamans. A visit by Narendra Modi to the islands at the end of December 2018 could help generate a big political momentum for Delhi’s long overdue return to the Andaman Sea.