Between November 20 to 24, The Andaman & Nicobar archipelago saw the first Defence of A&N Islands Exercise or DANX , involving fighters, heavy-lift transport aircraft, warships, infantry combat vehicles, special forces and regular troops to achieve synergy among the three combat arms of the Indian military, The Army, IAF and IN in the region.
Strategic importance of the Andamans
The Andamans occupies a strategic location at the gates of the Malacca Straits, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The southernmost point, called the Indira Point, of the Andamans is a mere 90 nautical miles from Indonesia. Malacca Strait is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, linking major maritime commerce of India, Malaysia, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea & Russia.
Malacca Straits forms a major route for oil tankers, carrying the oil for East Asian nation from the Gulf countries through this narrow passage.
It is also a major container shipping route. Export goods from China, for example towards Asia, Europe, and Africa have to pass through it. With the economic centre of gravity of the world shifting eastwards towards Asia, Malacca Strait will become even more important.
It is in this backdrop that the position of Anadamans is so vital. India, by maintaining a strong military presence here, can effectively monitor and control the passage and movement of goods through the Malacca Strait. Should the need arise, India can completely block sea traffic through this important lane.
Malacca Dilemma for the Chinese
India’s chokehold over the Malacca Strait is a strategic nightmare for the Chinese, as nearly 80% of their energy needs(oil imports) passes en-route from the Middle East through the Malacca Straits. Given that the India and China are strategic competitors in Asia and the World, China is decidedly at a disadvantage here. This strategic and geopolitical scenario has been termed by Hu Jintao, ex-President of China as the Malacca Dilemma. China has long sought to neutralize this threat by building alternative routes for their exports and energy imports. The CPEC and development of Gwadar is an example of this.
India’s buildup to counter Chinese
With Increasing Chinese power projection, more and more Chinese vessels and submarines are venturing into the Indian Ocean Region. This increased buildup is threatening India’s natural hold on the IOR. Meanwhile, Chinese policy of disputing claims over the territory of other nations has extended to the Andamans as well. If India is not vigilant, there might be a case where China may try their luck to degrade India’s hold over these islands.
The Andamans already boasts the tri-Service A&N Command (ANC), which was set up in October 2001 as the country’s only theatre command, with an operational commander commanding over all the manpower and assets of the Army, Navy and IAF in the region.
But the ANC has suffered from relative neglect due to turfs wars, lack of resources, environmental concerns and in general politico-bureaucratic lethargy over the years.
But with increased Chinese activity, the ANC is assuming importance as a key fulcrum, coordinating assets from the three branches, to surveil, track Chinese surface vessels and submarines and bolster defenses. A strong ANC is vital to provide India with the unhindered passage to the important shipping lanes in the region, check drug and weapons smuggling, piracy, and become a net provider of security to the littoral countries in the region.
More efforts needed
The DANX exercises are only a stepping stone to increase operational flexibility and synergy within the Indian Armed forces. Similar exercises are required with the neighboring counties of the IOR littoral to increase inter-operability and familiarisation among the armed forces. This will help is joint piracy control, relief and rescue operations and build a mutually beneficial stakeholder relationship with the relevant countries.
The Indian Ocean Region has been the lifeline of the economies of India and East Asia from ancient times. Peace in this region is vitally important to assure growth and prosperity for the region. With India’s increasing engagement with the East under the ‘Act East’ policy, the security of these waters is no longer a luxury but a necessity. By building up a credible security architecture in the Andaman & Nicobar, India will be able to nullify threats inimical to its interests and expand its sphere of influence.