COLOMBO: In his Independence Day address from the Red Fort on Saturday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that priority will be given to the “development” of some of India’s 1,300 islands. Lakshadweep, he said, would get optical fiber connectivity in the next 1,000 days.

Modi did not clarify whether the development he envisaged was economic or military or both. However, it is likely to be predominantly military for two reasons: Firstly, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) and Lakshadweep are of great strategic importance.

Secondly, the government’s 2017 plan to develop tourism in the ANI has flopped. According to Hindu Business Line (Jan 21, 2020), the private sector has found the requirement to build 4-star hotels, each costing Rs.320 million (US$ 4.2 million), to be unprofitable in the absence of infrastructure facilities in the earmarked locations.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) straddle Duncan’s Passage and the Ten Degree Channel. The Preparis Channel and Six Degree Channel are located to the north and south of the Island chain, respectively. According to Sujan Chinoy, Director General at the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA) New Delhi, these channels or passages are important trade routes for any shipping destined for Southeast and East Asia.

“The 572 islands (in ANI), out of which only 38 are inhabited, comprise 30% of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Six Degree and Ten Degree Channels in the Andaman Sea which lead to the Malacca Strait are vital to the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) along which flows global commerce, including energy trade, between Asia, Africa and the Pacific. The ANI are at the intersection of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and further to the Pacific Ocean, an important fulcrum of the strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific,” Chinoy says in a paper dated June 26, 2020 in the IDSA journal.

The ANI has often been referred to as India’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the East IOR, he points out. Close to 80% of China’s seaborne trade passes through this region. The possibility of this being throttled raises the specter of the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ for China, he adds.

This explains China’s increasing activity in the IOR. “China has steadily expanded its maritime presence in the Indian Ocean littoral through a continuous deployment of its naval forces, arms sales, creating bases and access facilities, ramping up military diplomacy, cultivating special political relations with littorals, and lavishly disbursing developmental finance for strategic ends. It has used the alibi of anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to ramp up the scale and frequency of its presence, without consideration for the threat perceptions of India,” Chinoy points out.

Going further he says: “An egregious example is the deployment of a submarine which berthed in Colombo in Sri Lanka in 2014, ostensibly on its way for so-called anti-piracy operations. China has also steadily enhanced its Operational Turnaround (OTR) in the Indian Ocean and developed new bases, including at Gwadar and Djibouti. This broad-based trend in the evolution of China’s presence is also reflected in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, where Chinese naval and survey vessels have been on the prowl and have occasionally entered India’s EEZ without prior intimation. China’s economic and strategic engagement with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia in the Bay of Bengal/Eastern Indian Ocean has been noticeable in recent years.”

The diplomat-turned researcher notes that there have been suggestions for coordinated surveillance of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Ombai Wetar Straits through the collaborative use of the ANI and Australia’s Keeling (Cocos) Islands. Similarly, there have also been recommendations about collaborative anti-submarine warfare (ASW) efforts in the Indian Ocean in which the ANI could play a critical role.

In her paper Smriti Chaudhury (Ladakh To Andamans – How India Is Boosting Its Defense Capabilities In Andaman & Nicobar Islands To Thwart China? July 29, 2020) notes that the runways at the naval air station INS Kohassa at Shibpur in North ANI had been extended to support large aircraft.

She points out that in 2016, India and Japan discussed a joint project to enhance infrastructure in the islands, including a proposal to install a Sound Surveillance Sensors (SOSUS) chain to improve India’s underwater domain awareness. The plan was to integrate India’s undersea sensor chain with the existing US-Japan “Fish Hook” SOSUS network meant specifically to monitor People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) submarine activity in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Rim.

Located approximately 300 km from the Indian west coast state of Kerala, the Lakshadweep archipelago comprises 36 islands giving India around 20,000 sq. km of territorial waters and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of approximately 400,000

India plans to convert the present naval outpost in Lakshadweep into a fully-fledged operational base, able to project power and provide sea denial and command of the sea capabilities, especially in relation to Pakistan, Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Maldives, says Balaji Chandramohan (Future Directions, 30 August 2018).

He points out that forward air bases on these islands, around 300 km from the Indian mainland, would give aircraft an extended combat radius. “The Indian Navy’s surveillance missions received a shot in the arm with the opening of a Naval Detachment (NAVDET) at Androth Island, situated in the Lakshadweep archipelago. The NAVDET would extend the Indian Navy’s presence at Androth by providing a communication network to connect with the mainland.’

Chandramohan notes that India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives already have a trilateral maritime security co-operation. From Lakshadweep, India will work closely with the network of 26 radar emplacements deployed across the atolls of the Maldives, which will be linked to the Indian Southern Command.

The aim is to keep a tab on Chinese maritime activity in the East IOR , he says. “China’s advancing interests in the Indian Ocean Region, which are evident from its increasing naval presence and the establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti, lend added urgency to the need for a reconfiguration in India’s military approach to the Lakshadweep island of Kavaratti.”

Prakash Gopal of the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, warns that the high cost of India’s naval expansion plans coupled with New Delhi’s inconsistent policies might prevent the building of a 200-ship naval fleet over a 15-year period to fulfil its stated role as a “net security provider” in the IOR.

“With some major domestic projects reportedly being shelved or curtailed, there is bound to be further uncertainty in the ranks of Indian firms. Lucrative as it may be, most firms are hesitant to invest in a sector beset with red tape, governmental apathy, and policy inconsistencies. This does not augur well for India’s long-term security preparedness,” Gopal says.