India’s new naval base in the Andamans, a direct counter to the Chinese presence
It is one of the most striking strategic decisions India has taken to counter expanding Chinese revisionism in the Indian Ocean. The new naval base will seek to push back Chinese over-reach.
In a move that is being massively hailed for its strategic prowess, India has started the development of a naval base in the Great Nicobar Island. The island is part of the group of 572 islands under the name of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The archipelago comes under the authority of the Indian state but it has only recently grabbed attention as a strategic location for military security in the greater Indo-Pacific region. The reason behind the Indian state advancing towards militarisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are guided by the security considerations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) but the most prominent of these reasons is the countering of the threat of Chinese presence. The latter point would only stand clearer if we understand the strategic positions that these islands occupy.
Figure 1. The Map of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Source: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Map-of-Andaman-Nicobar-Islands_fig1_258970597
The southernmost tip of the archipelago, the Great Nicobar island particularly stands closer to the tip of Indonesia and at the entrance of the Malacca Strait itself. The Malacca Strait is one of the world’s most important passages for maritime trade routes and it is this key location that India and China are aiming to control through their extended sphere of influence.
India and China are already mired into territorial disputes, the traces of which are also seen in their tense economic and diplomatic relationship. However, while the territorial dispute lies in the northern and eastern territories of India sharing borders with China, the strategic and economic theatre of the conflict lies somewhere else, the Indian Ocean. Much like the game of chess, India and China are also trying to employ their players in the form of military bases across the strategic locations in the region.
The question still poses itself however, how and why does the Malacca Strait come to occupy such an important position for the Chinese?
Figure 2. The Malacca strait provides the passage for about 80 per cent of China’s trade in energy resources. Source: https://cimsec.org/reinforcing-chinas-malacca-dilemma/
This small corridor of water is extremely important for China to maintain its maritime trade routes and hence through a new age “Maritime Silk Route” as a part of the larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, the country aims to take control of the whole region through a ‘string of pearls’ strategy which includes a commercial network of military bases and ports across the region.
Figure 3: China’s string of pearls strategy aims to connect major ports throughout the region.
As it is evident through the map, the Chinese maritime route aims to connect the major ports across the Indian Ocean region except any ports from the Indian territory. This points to a larger scheme of isolating the Indian trade routes and hence pushing a massive blow to the Indian economy. The building of the Gwadar Port in Pakistan and taking complete control of the Hambantota Port from the debt ridden Sri Lanka, are just two of the many strategies that China aims to employ through a confluence of the string of pearls, the debt-trap economic strategy and the larger belt and road initiative.
The Indian response?
The Chinese ambitions in the Indian ocean region (IOR) are not lost on India. The recent decision to build a naval base at the very outset of the Malacca strait comes across as a strategically calculated step.
Figure 4: Over the past years, India has worked towards militarising the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Source: https://maritimeindia.org/strategic-salience-of-andaman-and-nicobar-islands-economic-and-military-dimensions/
As the Chinese ascended into the region, militarising the Indian Ocean was the only logical step for India to be able to maintain its sphere of influence in the region. However, creating a naval base in the region has more implications than just creating a symbolic assertion for the Chinese over India’s dominance in the Indo-Pacific. The strategic location of the naval base at the outset of the Malacca Strait threatens the very gateway to the Chinese maritime trade route. China has already aggressively aimed at taking control of the port by also aiming to establish its ownership over the South China Sea. It is to be noted that the Malacca Strait also connects the Andaman Sea to the South China Sea and if China gains complete military control of the South China Sea, it could very well man the Malacca Strait for its own good.
There is no doubt thus that this strait is very crucial to China and by militarising the entrance to the strait India would send strong signals over to China regarding its military readiness to deal with the Chinese aggression. This could have far reaching consequences for the Chinese not just in the case of militarily but also in trade and commerce and hence economically. The economic might of the Chinese has been the major force driving all the other offensive operations of China in its bid to exert its dominance over the world. India, however, has been proactive in dealing with this threat strategically both on and off the battlefield.
Where China occupied the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, India came to the rescue of its southern neighbours in their hour of dire need by helping them pull through the economic collapse, something that China has triggered instead of stopping. While China gained control of the Gwadar Port in Pakistan to open its channels into the maritime route in the Persian Gulf, India struck a deal for the Chabahar Port with Iran in the Gulf of Oman. This goes on to suggest that India is actively ready to deal with China’s advances in its backyard step by step. The building of a naval base in the Great Nicobar Islands would serve to counter China’s efforts at surveillance of Indian military bases in the region. The country has been accused of surveillance activities in the past by not just India but others like the United States, countries in Latin America and also Japan in the past decade.
Therefore, creation of this naval base may serve to tip the balance in the favour of India in the long run.