This September, while Indian prime minister Narendra Modi met with tech titans in Silicon Valley, his administration quietly unveiled a $1.5 billion development package for the isolated Andaman and Nicobar island chains, meant to turn the islands’ capital city, Port Blair, into a hub of the ship repair industry by developing port infrastructure. Less than two weeks later, the government announced that it would soon begin to create an economic development plan for its island territories. The two announcements followed years of claims that India is quietly taking steps to strengthen its military posture in the islands. Put together, they seem to show that India is finally taking its eastern outposts seriously.
Any sign of increased investment in the Andaman and Nicobar islands will please those who want India to play a larger and more aggressive role in policing the Indian Ocean. The announcement, however, should be understood in the context of Indian domestic politics and India’s long history of poor follow-through when it comes to its domestic security. It remains to be seen whether India will sustain its renewed attention on its own “Far East.”
Arcing north-northwest from the northern tip of Sumatra, the Andaman and Nicobar islands are far closerW to Myanmar and Indonesia than to mainland India and are only 200 nautical miles from Singapore. Many of the islands are home only to indigenous groups that have strictly limited contact with the outside world, while others are uninhabited, making the area vulnerable to foreign infiltration. Their significance lies mainly in their location: near the western outlet of the Malacca Strait and well-situated to form part of what Chinese military strategists have called a “metal chain” blocking Chinese access to Europe and the Middle East.
The announcement of the Andaman and Nicobar development package followed nearly a year of increased engagement by New Delhi with the Indian Ocean region, beginning with Modi’s visit to Southeast Asia in November. His visits, and the announcement that his administration would “Act East” (as opposed to the government’s 20-year-old “Look East” policy), were meant to signal that India has finally gotten serious about exploiting the strategic potential of the Indian Ocean region. The development package for Andaman and Nicobar appears to show that the government is re-envisioning the island chain as an important commercial hub on the route between India and Southeast Asia, as well as strategic outposts.
But the timing and details of the announcement suggest that it has as much to do with India’s electoral politics as with naval strategy. Andaman and Nicobar’s parliamentary representative, a member of Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leaked the news of the development package to a local newspaper on September 18, four days before the islands held municipal elections. The BJP was facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from the rival Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which went on to win its first-ever seats on Port Blair’s municipal council.
Announcing new funding initiatives in advance of elections is a common campaign strategy in India—as seen in Modi’s announcement of a $19 billion development package for the northern state of Bihar in the run-up to its hotly contested elections. It is equally common for much of the funds promised during the campaign to disappear after the election takes place.
A closer look at those projects that have already been green-lit makes clear that development will be less seaward-looking than one might expect given Andaman and Nicobar’s status as an archipelago territory. Fully three-quarters of the funds (about $244 million dollars) have been earmarked for road- and bridge-building, with $146 million dollars of that going to build 60 miles of highway. Only $31 million dollars have been designated for a directly maritime-related project (development of a shipping transport facility), with the remaining funds going toward upgrading the Port Blair airport.
Should Modi’s administration fail to follow through on its promises to pay more attention to its maritime territories, it would be following a well-established pattern. India has been promising to beef up its presence in the islands since at least 2001, when it created the Andaman and Nicobar Command. The decision to rotate control of the command among the services, however, prevented development of the islands as a naval hub. In 2008-09, government officials responded positively to a push by Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar, then Commander in Chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Command (CINCAN), to see the islands as “springboards” not “outposts,” but once again little was actually done. More recently, rumors have circulated that the islands might receive a dedicated fleet, but it is unclear whether this reflects government thinking or the lobbying efforts of the current CINCAN, Vice Admiral PK Chatterjee. In light of this history, observers would do well to heed Chatterjee’s admission that “future accretions remain a major challenge.”
There is one good reason, however, to believe that India is serious this time: the rise of China and Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean. That interest is most concrete, and most obvious, in the nearby Coco Islands, only 12 miles off the northern tip of the Andamans (and technically a member of the same archipelago). The islands are part of Myanmar, but China has been operating there since 2009, at first clandestinely and then more openly. The tiny islands are now home to an 8,000-foot runway, with room for further expansion. India’s concerns about Chinese activity in the eastern Indian Ocean are exacerbated by its belief that China will eventually build a canal across the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand, giving Chinese vessels a relatively direct route into the Indian Ocean.
At least some elements of the Indian security establishment see the Andamans as a weak spot in India’s defenses. An anonymous “senior officer” based in Delhi recently told the Times of India that the islands are “[t]he only place where the Chinese can strike without facing any real opposition, merely to bother India” because Indian forces on the mainland are not able to go on alert whenever a Chinese naval vessel is sighted near the islands. With this in mind, a well-placed retired naval officer expressed strong confidence that the government is in fact committed to the naval development of the islands.
While many details of the Indian Navy presence on the islands remain classified, the military appears to have been moving faster than the civilian government. Government officials informed the press that the navy has three critical projects underway in the islands; these may include extending a runway near the southern end of the island chain to 6,000 feet from 3,500, with plans to eventually expand to 10,000 feet. The navy is also reportedly moving “five guided-missile destroyers, three stealth frigates and a nuclear submarine” to the Eastern Command (although not necessarily to the Andamans). Yet while the work has had at least one concrete, obvious effect (installing lights at the Port Blair airport to allow for the first-ever night landings), the navy is still talking more about its plans than its achievements. The Andaman and Nicobar islands’ place in India’s strategic posture remains in limbo.