The Andaman and Nicobar Islands – The Diplomat
India’s “Look East” policy was launched in 1991 by then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to increase cooperation with Southeast Asian countries. The term “Act East” received particular attention when then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her visit to India in 2011, encouraged the Indian government to “not only look east, but to engage towards the east and to act towards the east”. Finally, in 2014, the Look East policy was updated to become the Act East policy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the ASEAN summit held in Myanmar’s capital.
This successor to the Look East policy focuses more broadly on the extended neighborhood in the Indo-Pacific region. The Act East policy was conceived as an economic initiative towards ASEAN countries, but has since grown to include political, strategic and cultural aspects of the Indo-Pacific region. The main objectives of this policy are to increase economic cooperation and connectivity, but also to develop strategic relations with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region.
The North Eastern states of India play a vital role in this policy as these states are the gateway to the Southeast Asian countries. However, it should be noted that India has an additional gateway to the Indo-Pacific region.
Like the northeastern states, proximity to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is vital to the Act East policy. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have the potential to fulfill all major Act East policy objectives and can become the hub of India’s maritime policy in the Indo-Pacific region.
However, the islands were ignored and their strategic capabilities undermined for a long time. In recent years, however, the Indian government has made efforts to exploit the capabilities of the archipelago.
Although the capabilities of these islands are enormous, they will be very useful in advancing the Indian Act East policy. Acknowledging this fact, Modi, during the inauguration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands fiber optic cable project, said: “As part of the Act East policy, the role of Andaman and Nicobar in the strong relations of India with East Asian countries and other countries associated with the sea is crucial. and it will increase.
One of the main objectives of the Act East policy is economic cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries, and the location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a boon for the prospects of economic integration. The island chain is located very close to Indonesia and the Strait of Malacca, one of the busiest and most important maritime trade routes in the world. The strait offers the shortest shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands connect South Asia to Southeast Asia; the northernmost point of the island group is only 22 nautical miles from Myanmar and the southernmost point is only 90 nautical miles from the Indonesian archipelago. The archipelago rules over the Bay of Bengal and the Six Degree and Ten Degree Channels, through which more than 60,000 commercial vessels pass each year.
The economic importance of this group of islands is vast. The archipelago accounts for 30% of India’s total Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and the region abounds with marine species in high demand as seafood and for many other uses.
Building appropriate infrastructure and increasing connectivity in and out of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands can make it an attractive business and investment destination and a haven for tourism. According to a 2019 report by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the group of islands is located on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which can help to significantly boost the tourism industry in the archipelago. .
Recognizing these commercial advantages, the Indian government in 2017 constituted the Island Development Agency (IDA) for the development of the islands. India recently approved a long-awaited project to develop the infrastructure of the archipelago to benefit India’s economic objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. The central government has paved the way for an NITI Ayog project to build an international seaport, airport, container transshipment terminal, township and power station on Nicobar Island. The project has a total value of 750 billion Indian rupees.
Economic activities and connectivity go hand in hand. In 2020, the group of islands was connected to the mainland by fiber optic cables, thus laying the foundation stone for future projects. The new NITI Ayog project will help increase economic activities on the island through improved connectivity in the region. The transshipment terminal will potentially serve as an alternative transshipment facility on this busy shipping route.
Apart from this national project, the Indian government has also partnered with other countries to boost connectivity. In 2018, the Indian government joined forces with the Indonesian government under the “Shared Vision for India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”. Through this project, a special task force has been set up to increase connectivity between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Indonesian port of Sabang in Aceh to promote trade, tourism and people-to-people contacts. These initiatives will promote India’s economic ties in the Indo-Pacific region.
Beyond its economic potential, the archipelago is a strategic asset for India in the Bay of Bengal. In 2015, then Indian Navy chief RK Dhowan called the Andaman and Nicobar Islands a “very, very important aspect” to India’s security because of their strategic location: “They overlook all maritime lines of communication and strangulation” in the region.
Due to the strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the group of islands is also called India’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the East. The Six Degree or Great Channel is located to the south of the island chain, and the Ten Degree Channel lies between the Andaman and Nicobar island groups. These canals lead to the Strait of Malacca and are important for maritime lines of communication (SLOC), along which world trade and commerce flow. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands intersect the Indian and Pacific oceans, forming the pivot of the Indo-Pacific strategic concept.
The strategic importance of the group of islands has long been recognised. KM Pannikar, in his 1945 book “India and the Indian Ocean”, notes that the proximity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the Strait of Malacca provides India with a natural base. If the islands are fully utilized in coordination with air power, Pannikar wrote, India can convert the Bay of Bengal into a safe zone. Understanding this strategic need, India’s first and only tri-service command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), was established in the archipelago in 2001.
The importance of strategic location is huge for India’s foreign policy and especially for Act East policy. The island provides a natural base for India to address major challenges in the Indian Ocean region such as piracy, smuggling, SLOC security and most importantly Chinese ship intrusions.
In recent years, China has been striving to increase its footprint in the Indian Ocean region to overcome its “Malacca dilemma” and achieve its dream of a 21st century maritime silk road.
China has sometimes expanded its footprint through fishing vessels; these vessels sometimes entered the Indian EEZ without notice. However, the most concerning security issues are raised by intrusions by Chinese dual-use research vessels. These vessels can study seawater characteristics in the region to improve China’s underwater warfare capabilities.
In April 2021, during the Raisina Dialogue held in Delhi, former Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh spoke about the regular visits of the Chinese Navy to the Indian Ocean region. He also added that China is building its navy very quickly and has added around 80 ships in just five years, proving China’s naval ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. Another retired naval officer for India noted during the dialogue that “the strategic importance of the ANI is mainly driven by the growing presence and involvement of China in the Indian Ocean region” .
Given China’s growing influence and ambitions in the region, Indo-Pacific governments are engaging in multiple security collaborations.
The Indian Navy organizes coordinated patrols with Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia for the security of the region. In addition, INS Baaz and INS Kohassa, the two crucial naval air stations in the archipelago, are expanding their support operations.
The Andaman and Nicobar Command periodically organizes joint maritime exercises such as SIMBEX, the Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise. Indian forces are also conducting MILAN, the largest naval exercise in the region.
The capacity of the islands can be enhanced if the Indian government allows friendly countries access to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India can gain a lot from opening up the archipelago to friendly countries like Australia, France, Japan, UK and USA. This step can increase maritime cooperation between India and these countries but also affirm the influence of the Indian Navy in the region. Also, in return, India may consider requesting advanced military technology transfers, which are the need of the hour to counter Chinese influence in the region.
In summary, after a long period of blindness to the importance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Indian government is finally taking steps to harness the capabilities of this southernmost part of India. Recent projects initiated by the government will transform the islands and energize the Act East policy.
As India’s strategic asset, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have tremendous potential to help New Delhi engage the Indo-Pacific region and properly implement its Act East policy. The strategic and economic importance of the islands is crucial as the pivot of India’s Eastern Act maritime policy.