BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 5(3) November-December 2002

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Strategic Significance of the Andamans

Prakash Nanda


India's first "unified command" of the three services and the Coast Guard that was created in the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands completed one year of its formation on October 8, 2002. According to the Chief of the Naval Staff, Madhvendra Singh, the unified command, headed by a three-star military officer, Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash, is doing "exceedingly well". Because of its operations, there has been a steady reduction of incidents of gun running and poaching in the Islands. As against the 1999 figures of 44 foreign boats and 342 poachers and the 2000 figures of 64 foreign boats and 646 poachers that indulged in such activities, "after the setting up of the joint command last year, the number of boats had drastically come down to 38 and the apprehended poachers to 271'', Singh has informed.

More than apprehending the foreign poachers, the first Joint Service Command, named as Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), is, indeed, intended to ensure "impregnable surveillance and security of land, water and air space "of the Andaman and Nicobar "region" as a whole. It is under the direct control of the Chairman of the Committee of the Chiefs of Staff.  In fact, the ANC is supposed to be "the laboratory" for the unified command of the three services at the national level in the Integrated Defence Headquarters.

Over the last one year, a major tri-Service amphibious exercise, codenamed ``Amphex'', has been kicked off (November 2 to 10, 2001) in the operational area of the integrated Command, with assets from the Army, Navy and IAF, as well as the Coast Guard. Apart from a mountain brigade of the Army, especially earmarked for amphibious operations, units of special and mechanized forces, artillery and air defence artillery, engineers and logistic units took part in the exercise. In addition to a Jaguar aircraft operated in maritime strike roles, the exercise also witnessed the participation of transport aircraft IL-76, medium light aircraft AN-32 and helicopters, carrying out specialized para-drop operations, air logistics and communication exercises.

Of course, at the moment, the Navy has the largest presence in the island territories with a fleet of sixteen Ships based at Port Blair. It is also flying surveillance missions with  Dorniers.   The Army component of the A&N Command is just a solitary infantry brigade (108 Mtn Bde), though it has been decided to have additional land forces. The Indian Air Force, which has a squadron of helicopters based in Car Nicobar, is likely to grow up with the deployment of a fighter squadron once the runway extensions work at Port Blair and Car Nicobar is completed.  The idea is that the Andaman Command shall develop in such a way hat the three Services and the Coast Guard works in a synergetic manner under one Commander who will represent one of the three Services in rotation.

However, this essay is not aimed at analyzing the synergetic approach of the Indian armed forces. It focuses, instead, on the strategic importance of the Andaman region in the 21st Century, which, to quote Admiral Singh, is going to be the "century of the seas''. In fact, it is this realization which has resulted in the first ever "integrated Command" of the country in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Historical Background

The Andaman and Nicobar islands, also known as the Bay Islands or the Emerald Islands, is an archipelago of 572 islands situated in the Bay of Bengal. They are situated 1200 km off the southeastern coast of the Indian mainland. They are spread over an area of 8249 in a north-south direction. These historically significant islands, of which only 36 are inhabited, are a treasure trove of nature's bounty, beauty and resources. Mythologically, the name Andaman is presumed to have derived from the monkey-God "Hanuman", who was known to the Malayas as Handuman. The name Nicobar seems to be a corruption of the South Indian term "Nakkavaram" (Land of the Naked) as indicated in the great Tanjore inscription of 1050 AD. Historically, the islands   were well known to geographers and travelers like Ptolemy, Marcopolo and other Chinese travelers. Their maps have references to these islands and heir inhabitants. Ptolemy talked of "Angdaman islands" (Islands of good fortune), implying thereby that these islands were being visited by the Western and then Arab merchants going to the Far East.

However, it was after the British period that these islands gained disrepute. The British took control of Andaman group of islands in 1790 and the Nicobar group in 1869. The Nicobar group, it may be noted, here under the Dutch colonialists in between 1758 and 1869. Be that as it may, under the foreign rule, the islands became more famous (or notorious?) as "Kalapani", meaning island of black water. The Cellular Jail, Ross Island and Viper Island were used by the British to imprison and punish the dreaded prisoners from the mainland, majority of whom were fighters for Indian freedom, particularly after the 1857, the year of India's First War of Independence.  During the World War II, the islands fell under the Japanese. The British regained them in 1945.

Geographically, the Andaman and Nicobar groups are separated by 160 km of sea, the former lying to the north of 100 channel and the latter to its south. The total population of the islands is, as per the 2001 Census, 356,265. The Andaman Group comprises of, from the North, the North Andaman, and Middle Andaman the South Andamans, which also has the Capital of the entire Union Territory, Port Blair, and the Little Andaman Islands. Shallow seas separate these Islands. The former three islands and the surrounding peripheral/ satellite islands are grouped under what is called the Greater Andamans. The last one of these islands is called the Little Andamans. The Northern most point, called the Land Fall Island, is barely 190 Nautical Miles, or approximately 300 Kilometers from the Myanmar mainland. From the Coco Islands, which house, today, the Chinese maintenance and berthing facilities, it is just 18 kilometers. The Coco Channel divides Land Fall Island from the Coco Island.

The Nicobar Group consists of the Car Nicobar in the North, and the Little Nicobar and the Great Nicobar Group of islands further south. The last is the Southern most of the Indian territories with the southern most tip called the Pygmalion point (also called the Parsons Point) and now named the Indira Point which is just 150 or so kilometers from Sumatra. "Six Degree Channel" separates Great Nicobar from Sumatra. This distance equals that between Delhi and Agra! In fact, the southern most point of India is Indira Point, not, as per the general perceptions, Kanya Kumari. Similarly, Phuket in Thailand is only 273 nautical miles away from Indira point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Madurai! These aspects of the geographical location of the Andaman and Nicobar islands are all the more significant when one realises that their distance from any part of the Indian mainland is about 1200 kilometers (1255km from Calcutta, 1190 km from Chennai and 1200 km from Vishakhapatanam).

Geologically speaking, the islands are a part the land mass coming down from the Patkai Bum through the Arakan Yoma of the North-east India, and Myanmar respectively, as well as Malaysia, and Indo- China (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). Climatically, it is in the Tropical Rain Forest Belt, though the surrounding of the sea and regular breeze makes the climate very pleasant. The main reason why the Danish Missionaries who had first come into Nicobar Islands left was because they found the climate too hot and the mosquitoes a menace rather than just a nuisance. As regards the flora and fauna, the islands are rich with evergreen forests (covering 86 percent of the territories), fascinating corals and coral reefs, rich marine biodiversity and mineral resources. There are reported occurrence of minerals like gold, limestone, nickel, selenite, sulphur and diatomaceous earth, oil and natural gas.

Significantly, these islands create a series of choke points which not only help them dominate western entry to Singapore (hence rest of Southeast Asia, China, two Koreas and Australia) from Europe and West Asia but also any movement between the Far East and Calcutta, Cox's Bazar (Bangladesh), or Yangon (Rangoon.) In addition, these islands also control any movement between Trincomolee (Sri Lanka) or Visakhapatnam and Yangon.

One would do well to remember that when the British were preparing to demit power in India, the Defence establishment in London was very keen that the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean were detached from India and retained under British sovereignty as naval and air bases for the defence of the Empire and the Commonwealth (for controlling the interests of the empire in East and Southeast Asia or Asia-Pacific) after the loss of India (see the Times of India, dated June 8, 1947). Unfortunately for the British General Staff, its efforts in this direction came a cropper because of opposition from the Viceroy of India Lord Louis Mountbatten. He feared any attempt in that direction had the potential to derail the very process of transfer of power in India, which was high on the agenda of His Majesty's Government and in which he had a personal stake. Rebuffed in India, the British General Staff dug in its heels in Colombo and ensured that the independence of the Island was linked to the grant of defence bases on the Island. Therefore, before demitting power in Sri Lanka, the British Government entered into a defence arrangements with Colombo, pledging its military assistance for the security of Sri Lanka "against external aggression and for the mutual protection of essential communications" in return for use of her naval and air bases.

It may be also noted that during the negotiations for the Indian Independence and simultaneous partition, the Muslim League pleaded to the British that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands should go to the proposed Pakistan on geographical and strategic reasons [see for details see Avtar Singh Bhasin, Some Called it partition, Some Freedom, (Siba Exim Pvt. Ltd, Delhi, 1998), pp-158]. It expressed the fear that with India in control of the Islands, she could refuse "to allow any passage through India of Pakistan troops proceeding from Western Pakistan to Eastern Pakistan, or vice versa. To fortify their case further, the League pointed out that Pakistan being split in two wings, the sea route would be the only available route between them and that the Andaman and Nicobar islands constituted an essential coaling station fro a voyage from Chittagong to Karachi".

Policies in Independent India                                                           

Unfortunately, however, in the post-independent India, the Andaman and Nicobar islands did not receive the due attention it deserved. There are many instances to prove this point, but two of them are particularly noteworthy. First is the instance of how for good ties with Tokyo, Delhi did not bother to think of the interests of many in Port Blair.  As is well-known, the Government of India had signed a Treaty of Peace with Japan on June 9, 1952, which, apart form establishing "firm and perpetual peace and amity" between the two countries, also envisaged, and this was a unique gesture, that India would not claim any war reparations from Japan.

Ironically, this realization dawned on New Delhi only early this year when it was finding a way out of a ticklish situation arising out of the popular demands in the Andamans that Tokyo must may war reparations of at least Rs. 250000 million to the affected people in the islands for the actions taken by Japan and its nationals in the course of its three-and half years' occupation of the islands during 1942 and 1945.   In fact, the islands are the only Indian territory which went under Japanese occupation during the World War II. The Japanese occupied from and held successfully   these islands against Britain from March 23, 1942 to October 9, 1945.

Local historian Gouri Shankar Pandey, who is also the General Secretary of one Homfraygunj Martyr's Memorial Committee (HMMC), the Port Blair-based group, which is demanding for compensations from Japan, told this writer during a recent visit there that during its three and half years -rule, Tokyo killed nearly one third of the islands' then total population of 33772. He gave the exact figure of those killed at 11,914. According to him, some of them were killed for their loyalty to the British and some were literally liquidated when the Japanese realized towards the end of the World War II that they could not sustain and feed the whole population (there was shortage of fuels also) of the islands following the  virtual blockade by the "Allied forces". In the early 1945, the allied forces had regained some of their military strength power in the South East Asian region and did not allow any Japanese vessels carrying food, cloth, medicine and fuel to these islands.

Apart form loss of lives, the likes of Pandey say  that  the Japanese had literally brought the income of the islanders down to zero when they left in the sense that during their occupation they introduced  "value-less notes" in the islands instead of their own currency of Yen. They disallowed the Indian rupees and British pounds. The result was that after the Japanese left; their notes in the islands became counterfeit.

Considering all this, the HMMC has been demanding since early 1980s not only Japanese apology but also a compensation of "conservative" Rs. 2500 crore (presently one U.S. dollar is equivalent to 45 odd rupees) - Rs. 1100 crore for the loss of lives and Rs crore for the loss of properties. Its argument is that since the Japanese have paid similar compensations to Southeast and East Asian countries, they hould do the same to the Andamanese.

Since then it has been a series of representations on these lines form the Andamanese to the central government in Delhi and the Japanese ambassador. Various petitions have been presented to central leaders visiting Port Blair that they must impress on the Japanese government the genuineness of their demands. Pandey says that his last communication in this regard to the Japanese ambassador in New Delhi was in March last year.

Interestingly when last time the Congress party was in power, the then foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee tried to dissuade this group of Andamanese from persisting with their pleas. Mukherjee was believed to have said that since the Japanese then were supporting the famous Indian freedom fighter Subash Chandra Bose, it would be "immoral" for India to stake any claim for compensations. Bose, apparently, had visited Andamans on December 29, 1943 and the next day had unfurled India's national flag and proclaimed India's independence form the Britain. His "Indian Independence League"(Indian National Army or the INA was its military wing) set up a government, though in effect it was only symbolic, with the Japanese continuing as the de facto rulers of the Islands.

However, when the then United Front Alliance, led first Deve Gowda and then by I.K. by Gujral   came to power in Delhi in 1995, there was a little change in the attitude. On January 30, 1996, the Ministry of Home Affairs wrote to the local administration of the Andaman Nicobar islands to furnish the details of the period under Japanese occupation. Accordingly, the details were sent.  With the coming of the BJP-led NDA government in 1998, the local BJP M.P. Bishnupada Ray reportedly put further pressure on the central government to do something in favor of the petitioners.

It is against this background that the final decision of the Government of India on the matter came.  On February 28, 2002, the Indian Home Ministry, in a letter to Pandey (vide No. U-13024/15/2001-ANL), said, " By virtue of Article 1 of the Agreement between the Government of India and the Government of Japan regarding settlement certain Indian claims signed at Tokyo on 14th December, 1963, the Government of Japan paid to the Government of India Yen 9 million in final settlement of all claims relating to loss or damage to property or for personal injury or death pursuant to Article VIII (a) of the Treaty of Peace between India and Japan signed in June, 1952. The Press Release issued on 14th December 1963, also stated that the 1963 Agreement completed settlement of all claims against Japan under the peace Treaty ending World War II. It also stated that India's World War II claims against Japan have already been settled. In view of the above, it appears that the claims forwarded by HMMMC cannot be forwarded to the Government of Japan; and

"(Since) the government of Japan shall not have to pay any further compensation for the claims referred to in the agreement ...we are of the opinion that the refereed letter (seeking compensation) cannot be forwarded to the Government of Japan".

It may be noted that though according to Article VI of the Indo-Japan Peace Treaty, "India waives all reparations claims against Japan", the Article VIII (a) had envisaged that Japan was under "obligation to consider on their merits claims for loss or damage to property or for personal injury or death which arose between the existence of a state of war".

This being the case, the Government of India could have presented the case of the Andaman and Nicobar islands to Japan before finalizing the "Settlement of war Damages" with Japan in 1963.  The fact that it was not done and the citizens of Port Blair were not even consulted before taking this decision means that those days the Andaman and Nicobar Islands did not matter much to New Delhi.  It could be further evident from the fact that for many years after independence premier school atlases of India did not even have a separate map of the area. One had to look for the map of Andaman group in one set of maps of Thailand and Myanmar while for Nicobar it was the map of Asia, where one could hope to have some glimpse of the area. Neither the Survey of India nor any other private agency has a separate map of this region, at least for public use.

In fact, as local historian Pandey asserts on the basis of his research, the Government of India did not even bother to know what exactly were the areas that comprised the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during the British rule. If he is to be believed, it is because of this serious lapse on independent India's part that Myanmar claimed and got some important parts of the pre-1947 Islands, which, significantly includes, believe it or not, the strategic Coco Islands, about which we will deal separately a little later. It may be noted here that when Muslim League, and this we have already discussed, was pressing the British for getting the Andaman and Nicobar islands for Pakistan, Myanmar (then Burma), too, had chipped in to lay her own claim on them (Bhasin, p- 195). But the British Government decided to ignore it and told the House of Commons that they had no comments to offer on the Burmese claim.

According to Pandey, Myanmar took possession of the Coco Islands in 1954. In fact, some senior naval officials that this writer interacted with Port Blair are of the same opinion that the Coco islands belonged to the Andamans and should not have been given to Myanmar.   It may be noted that Myanmar had illegally occupied the Narkondam islands bordering the Cocos and it was only sometime in early seventies that the Indian navy recaptured it. It may also be noted that it was as late as 1987 that India bothered to conclude one Maritime boundaries Agreement with Myanmar.

It is really surprising that despite this history, the Government of India did not think it proper to ensure the territorial unity and integrity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by deploying adequate forces to the nearby region, even during India-China war in 1962 and India-Pakistan War in 1965. After the 1962 battle, it was only decided to have a small naval base at Port Blair with Commander R K Lal as the first Resident Naval Officer.    It took 14 years after that, December 15, 1976, to upgrade the post of Resident Naval Officer to that of Commodore. Next year, that was, 1977, the Commodore AN was redesignated as Fortress Commander. This post of FORTAN was upgraded to that of Rear Admiral in August 1981 and to that of Vice Admiral in March 1987. Meanwhile, the Army had made its small presence in the Islands in 1972(after the Indo-Pak War) and the Air Force in 1984. In brief, one can thus say that till the early 1980s, the security structures in the Islands were far from adequate. In this context, the following observations of the former Chief of Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral V S Soman, recounting his experiences in 1965, are extremely significant [for details see Vice Admiral G M Hiranandani, Transition to Triumph : Indian Navy 1965-1975 (Lancer Publishers, 2000), p].

Admiral Soman recalls:

”After the Indo-Chinese conflict (in 1962), the defence of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was left entirely to me. The Army refused to send even a platoon there and we had to raise our own land force with sailors in khaki uniform to man the various stations in these islands. So far as the Navy was concerned, as soon as Pakistan started the trouble in Kutch, I had felt that my first priority would be these Islands because while talking to various people during my visit to Indonesia as the Fleet Commander a few years earlier, and having been briefed on the developments since then, I felt a little nervous about these islands. This was because when the Army refused to send any units for their self-defence, I had taken on the responsibility of doing so with sailors with no experience in land fighting. But I had also
placed MYSORE and two major ships in the area till the very last minute. It was only after the war had started and I was permitted to bring the Fleet back to the West Coast that I brought the ships across the Western theatre because I wanted to ensure that no opportunity was given to Indonesia to start anything at the same time. Whether eventually it proved itself I do not know but prior to that Soekarrno (Indonesia’s then President) was reported to have been keeping an eye on the Bay islands. I was quite convinced in my mind that the Indonesian navy, knowing fully well that only a small force of sailors in khaki uniform was present on these islands, could make an attempt to capture the Nicobar island despite the then pretty poor state of Indonesia's navy".

Was there really a threat from Indonesia? The answer can be found in the memoirs of Pakistani Air Marshall Ashgar Khan (the chief of Pakistani Air Force during the Rann of Kutch incident), recounting the conversations between Soekarno and his naval chief Admiral Martadinata:

President Soekarno said that India's attack on Pakistan was like an attack on Indonesia and they were duty bound to give Pakistan all possible assistance. President Soekarno told him to take away whatever would be useful to Pakistan in this emergency. Two Russian supplied submarines and two Russian supplied missile boats were sent to Pakistan post haste.”

Admiral Martadinata asked Air Marshall Asghar Khan "Don't you want us to take over the Andaman Islands? A look at the map will show that the Andaman and Nicobar islands are an extension of Sumatra and are in any case between East Pakistan and Indonesia. What rights have the Indians to be there? In any case, the Indonesian Navy will immediately commence patrols on the approaches to these islands and carry out the aerial reconnaissance missions to see what Indians have".

In hindsight, thus, it would appear that the concern voiced by Admiral Soman about the security of Andaman and Nicobar islands was not entirely unfounded.

Present Posture
It was only during the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands drew serious attention of the Indian policy makers. And this trend was given a definite push by the present defense minister George Fernandes. He is the first defense minister of the country who, in a press interview (PTI, January 10, 1999), termed the Andamans, as India's farthest frontier and the "most insecure" region. It is Fernades, who mooted the idea of upgrading the security structure of the Islands and the surrounding areas by deciding in August 1998 to establish a "Far Eastern Maritime Command" at Port Blair, independent of the operational control of Eastern Naval Command at Visakhapatnam That the idea was further modified in favor of a "Joint Service Command" in October 2001 is the further proof of present government's seriousness in according the Islands their long overdue importance.

From the point of view of sheer convenience, we may cite two types of reasons for the change in the hitherto indifferent policy of the security establishment towards the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. One could be the 'tactical reasons" and the other "strategic". Among the tactical reasons was the concern over increased smuggling of narcotics and arms around and the need to keep an eye on illegal shipping and other maritime activities in the region. It may be noted that arms smuggling is a very profitable business in this region.  Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence Directorate has been carrying out gun running into South Bangladesh and North-western Coast of Myanmar, to arm the Naga Insurgents, in India and the Muslim Rohingiyas of Myanmar, along the Arakan Coast, as well as the Karens and the Kachins of Northern Myanmar. These waters are also the routes for the Chinese gun running to Bangladesh from where the arms come into Indian North-east.  It is nobody's contention any more that there are now strong linkages between drug trafficking, arms proliferation and terrorism. There was thus a need for us to address this volatile mix, a serious threat to regional security.

Added to this have been the problem of sea-piracy, illegal immigration and plundering of natural resources such as illegal fishing and felling of trees, particularly the rare teak trees and medicinal plants. Available information estimates of the foreigners in the Andamans top 50,000 but officials say the numbers are larger. Foreigners from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have permanently settled in the islands using fake Indian ration cards while citizens of Thailand, China, Indonesia and Malaysia have reportedly migrated temporarily to plunder the natural resources and leave. The illegal migrants are not known usually to establish themselves in the islands directly from their home countries. They infiltrate into India in the Northeast states or West Bengal or Tamil Nadu and pick up ration cards and other residency documents before landing in the islands.

Finally, there has been the realization that the geographical assets of the islands should be optimally utilized towards the generation of national wealth and employment. As an important parliamentary debate in 1997 highlighted, Port Blair could be developed as a strategic international trade center and the islands as a whole could be converted into one of the world's best tourist attractions. The union territory is situated in such an ideal location where one can easily attract more and more trade and business on the Islands. In fact, the present Lt. Governor of Andaman and Nicobar N N Jha is lobbying hard with the central government for the setting up of an "Oil Terminus and Trans-shipment Port" at "Campal Bay (Great Nicobar Island) to carter to heavy international maritime traffic across the Indian Ocean corridor".  The idea is that since "the nearest oil jetties in this region are at Singapore and Colombo, which are already overburdened by the heavy sea traffic that passes on its way to the Malacca Straits through which major chunk of the international trade takes place and which is absolutely vital for the survival of the mega economies of Japan and the Asian tigers, with a cargo carrier passing every three minutes", the proposed oil terminus will attract sound business. In fact, if Mr. Jha is to be believed, almost all the Delhi-based ambassadors of the ASEAN countries have shown interests towards the proposal.

Strategic notions
As regards the strategic concerns, the Andamans provide the key to the eventual success of the much talked about "Look East Policy" of India (policy towards the Asia-Pacific reason) that was enunciated by the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in early 1990s. As we have noted earlier, it is the close proximity of  Andaman and Nicobar Islands with the Southeast Asia that  make India as much a part of that region as that of South Asia. It is now universally accepted that 21st century is going to be the century of the Asia-Pacific, whose stability, or lack of it, will have a direct consequence upon the global order as a whole. It is in this region that we find the presence of almost all major global players: the United States of America, Russian Federation, People's Republic of China, Japan, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India. The region is marked by the presence of seven of the ten most populous countries of the world; some of the largest standing armies; four declared (the U.S., Russia, India and Pakistan) and one undeclared (North Korea) nuclear weapon states, the presence of a US nuclear armed fleet and several missile manufacturing and exporting countries. The civilisational spreads as well as the diversity if  the political systems of Asia add to the uniqueness of the Asian environment. There is then the economic dimension, the natural resources, particularly hydro-carbons and the presence of a massive, competent, technically trained human resource. All these will, as India's former foreign minister Jaswant Singh says, significantly contribute to the structures of the future of the world. [see his speech at Singapore on June 2, 2000 under the heading "India and ASEAN: Security Paradigm AD 2000"].

In fact, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski also talks of the same theme. According to him, though throughout the 20th Century world politics was dominated by struggles over "Eurasia", it was mainly concentrated in Europe - "the western periphery of Eurasia". In the 21st century, he adds, the world politics will be dominated by "eastern extremity of Eurasia" or the "Far East Asia" , which, in turn, will be the main "centre of interactions of China, Japan and India" to a large extent and possibly that of Russia and Indonesia to a certain extent [   Zbigniew Brzezinski, "United States and the Asia-Pacific Region" in M L Sondhi and K G Tyagi ed. Asia pacific security: Globalisation and Development (Manas Publications, New Delhi, 2001, pp. 17-32)] . Even Nehru had visualized way back in 1935 that " The Pacific is likely to take the place of Atlantic as a future nerve centre of the world. Though not directly a Pacific State, India will inevitably exercise an important influence there" [quoted by Dipankar Banerjee, "India and Southeast Asia in the Twenty-first Century", in Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee, ed. "Towards an Era of Cooperation: An Indo-Australian Dialogue" (IDSA, New Delhi, 1995), p-188)].

As it is, the region has already been marked by the emergence of some successful regional organizations like the Association of (ten) Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, of which India is a dialogue partner), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC, which India is aspiring to join), and of regional organizations with tremendous potentials, such as BIMSTEC ( in 1998 Bangladesh,  India , Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand came together to form this  economic association linking the littoral states of Bay of Bengal and aiming  at promoting rapid economic cooperation between members in key areas like trade, investment, tourism, fisheries, agriculture, transportation and human resources development) and Mekong Gaga Cooperation Project (announced in July 2000 by the foreign ministers of the six nations -   India , Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and  Vietnam - with the aim of enhancing economic and cultural relations, particularly in the areas of  tourism, communications and transport linkages).

What is noteworthy in this context is that all these organizations have member countries, which, with the notable exception of landlocked Laos, are all maritime countries. In this sense, the Andamans provide the most ideal logistics base from where sea power could extend its reach. It is all the more significant given the fact that all these countries are critically dependent on the key   "strategic sea-lanes of communication" or SLOC of the Straits of Malacca, lying between the Malay Peninsula and Singapore to the eastward and Indonesia to the West. It may also be noted that unlike other regions, which have formed politico-security cooperation frameworks: the OSCE in Europe, the OAS in America, the OAU in Africa, Asia-Pacific region lacks any over-arching security framework at the moment. Until recently, majority of the states in the region tended to rely on conventional means for ensuring security such as expanding national military strength and accretion to that strength through an alliance; in short, an Asian variant on the 'balance of power' approach. Latelyas the experiment with the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) shows, there has been a shift from reliance on bilateral and multilateral military alliances to a more cooperative approach on security. Similarly, India, which has always believed in the principle of  an independent security paradigm, does not mind any more in being a part of regional cooperation in security matters, in a cooperative framework, as India's participation in the ARF demonstrates. India has been conducting regular joint naval exercises and joint-military trainings with the Southeast Asian countries, both bilaterally and multilaterally. Since 1995, the Indian Navy has been hosting regular gathering of warships from these countries at Port Blair. Every two-year bilateral gatherings of this nature are held and these are called "Milan" of warships. Countries that have participated include Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia (incidentally Indonesia once happened to be the country, which was most worried about the naval developments in the Andamans.)  "Milans", in this sense, are positive developments as they have removed the hitherto unnecessary apprehensions of Indian military power in the minds of the ASEAN countries), Australia and the United States.

Of course, all these countries happen to be the ARF members. Significantly, as per the latest Indo-US accord, Indian naval ships based in Port Blair are escorting these days all the American vessels from Singapore to Diego Garcia. It is also the manifestation of the "Look East Policy" that the scope of India's naval diplomacy has been extended further with the country conducting joint military exercises across the Indian Ocean with countries such as Vietnam and South Korea. Currently, India is proposing that Japan and Vietnam along with India should be strategic partners in anti piracy operations that will involve other ASEAN countries. It may be noted in this context that in November 1999, the seizure of the Japanese ship MV Alondra Rainbow by pirates and its eventual recovery by the Indian Navy due to a coordinated networking with international maritime agencies highlighted the problem of piracy near the Straits of Malacca and the importance of Indian military facilities in the Andamans to confront the problem.

Challenges: Chinese expansionism and the International Islamic Jihad

The cooperative relationships that the Indian naval diplomacy boasts of in the region do not, unfortunately, extend to China and Myanmar at the moment. Though India has made enough efforts to engage the two countries, nothing substantial has come out in response. In fact, China has always resented the growing Indian naval activity in the region. It even protested against the joint Indo-Vietnam exercises in South China Sea, which somehow China considers to be its exclusive area of influence and where it is competing with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in claiming over the oil-rich Spratly Islands. It may be noted here that in order to improve and consolidate its power in the South China Sea, Beijing wants to control the strategic Strait of Malacca as well.

In early 1993, Zhao Nanqi, director of the General Staff Logistics Department of the Chinese Navy, issued a top-secret memorandum that explained in great detail the PLA's strategic plans to consolidate control over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean under the new doctrine of "high-sea defense." Zhao stated that In "We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians." In order to enable China to consolidate the strategic posture Beijing spires to, Zhao envisaged a massive naval build-up and assertive use of sea power, saying that only activist use of sea power can be considered the primary means to enable the PRC to finally secure its control over the oil-rich South China Sea. Beijing, of course, has no doubt that its neighbors would oppose its strategic surge. "We are taking armed conflicts in the region into account," Zhao stated in his top-secret memorandum. If Yossef Bodansky, Director of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the U.S. Congress, as well as the World Terrorism Analyst with the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies (Houston TX), is to be believed, China's naval threat analysis in the summer of 1995 specifically pointed to the growing naval cooperation between the US and India as well as to India's own naval build-up programs and other naval activities at the Andamans.  Therefore, in the spring of 1995, as these strategic calculations were being made, Beijing resolved to markedly expedite its surge, at the least parts of it, so that it would be impossible for its "enemies" to forestall its rise to global power. The most urgent task identified by the Chinese navy was to consolidate control over the Strait of Malacca so that no other power is capable of blocking its surge the moment it was capable of surging into the Indian Ocean.

Bodansky says, "While the PLA High Command has no qualms about the CMC's policy decision that it is imperative for Beijing to control the Strait of Malacca, they know that it is not that easy to accomplish in peacetime. Presently, the PRC cannot just occupy the Strait of Malacca -- take on Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia by force of arms. Therefore, the CMC instructed the PLA High Command to come up with a practical strategy of attaining as much of the original goal within the confines of prevailing world conditions. Beijing concluded that what the PRC can do is to encircle the Strait of Malacca and, through covert operations, create intolerable conditions for potential enemies and opponents in the region.

"Consequently, it has become imperative for the PRC to consolidate direct control over both approaches to the Strait of Malacca while neutralizing the states in between through covert action. The approaches to the Strait of Malacca can be dominated from the Spratly islands and Burma's coastline on the Bay of Bengal (most of the region's islands being Indian territory). The key to the covert action is having Beijing's close allies -- Iran and Pakistan -- either win over the Muslim governments of the key regional states or subvert the Muslim population of other key states in the region so that the internal crisis and instability will prevent them from resisting the Chinese strategic surge and rise to hegemonic position (emphasis added)"

Bodansky's point that the Islamist subversion of several countries in Asia is intensified because of the strategic interests of a third party -- China-- and, to a lesser extent, of its close allies like Pakistan who bear the brunt of the sponsorship of, and support for the terrorist escalation has been shared by many analysts the world over. This aspect is quite important in the post- September 11, 2001 phase of fight against international terrorism. This is not to say that the bulk of the locally active terrorist and subversive are completely artificial. On the contrary, local issues, outstanding grievances of the local population, existing indigenous terrorist and subversive organizations are exploited by the sponsoring states as the basis for their operations and a source for local support and legitimization. What one stresses here is that once the sponsoring states take over an indigenous subversion and terrorist movement, the intensity of the armed struggle markedly rises and the character of the modus operandi of the local forces is altered, at times drastically, in order to serve the interests of the sponsors.

The local forces are active and willing participants in this cynical game of nations because it is in their self-interest to escalate their own fight against the local governments. In order to affect the desired escalation, the sponsoring states provide tremendous all around assistance -- training, expertise, weapons, and funds -- which the local organizations use for both the pursuit of their own indigenous objectives as well as for operations on behalf of the sponsoring states. Moreover, it should not be ignored that in principle, the intelligence services involved -- mainly the Pakistani ISI -- the various Islamist operatives that they use to organize local on-site networks, and the local terrorists are all ideological brethren and genuine solidarity does exist among all the participants.

The mere presence of operatives and terrorists of the sponsoring states in the ranks of the local organizations legitimizes and sanctifies the close cooperation in what is essentially the furthering of the global strategic interest of the PRC and the Trans-Asian Axis (of which the Islamists are a major component). Indeed, Islamist forces sponsored by Pakistan are destabilizing the local states overlooking the Strait of Malacca. The Islamists have gained more influence in Indonesia and Malaysia. They have been subverting Thailand -- using both the local Patans in the countryside and spectacular operations by expert terrorists arriving from the sponsoring states -- while also maintaining subversive infrastructure in Indonesia as deterrence for Jakarta, as well as taking over the struggle of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar to exercise additional pressure on Yangoon to cooperate with Beijing.

Moreover, because of the direct strategic bearing of the Philippines on the issue -- Manila's claim to the Spratly Islands -- there has been a marked escalation of Islamist subversion and terrorism as well, evident from both the uprising of the Moros in the countryside and the highly lethal operations by a combination of Philipino Abu Sayyaf forces and experts terrorists arriving from Pakistan in recent years. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that the very same week in mid August 1995 that Philipino and Chinese negotiations on international law concerning the Spratly Islands were being concluded in Manila, a major terrorist alert was declared in the Philippines concerning a major surge of Abu Sayyaf and other Islamist militant groups.

What all this points to is that since the fall of 1995, Beijing has been proceeding on an accelerated implementation of its ambitious and multi facetted program to consolidate control over the Strait of Malacca as a key to controlling the China Sea, the eastern Indian Ocean and chocking Western commercial traffic.  And it is in this context the case of Myanmar assumes special significance for India. Myanmar happens to be the only ASEAN country with which India's naval interactions are literally non-existent. "To be very honest, we do not know much about Myanmar", says Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash , the Commander-in- Chief of the Joint Service Command at Port Blair.

It is to be noted that with a very long coastline stretching along the Bay of Bengal and a few islands offshore, Myanmar offers a strategic staging point for controlling the western approaches to the Strait of Malacca. The only other strategic facilities in the area are India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Not surprisingly, therefore, Beijing has been courting Yangoon's ruling military junta since the late 1980s by offering economic and military assistance that includes upgradation of the country's naval facilities.

In mid-1991, China and Burma began specific discussions on naval modernization and cooperation. To demonstrate Beijing's commitment, the first six HAINAN-class fast attack craft (FAC) were delivered later that year. Consequently, in the summer of 1992, Beijing and Yangon (Rangoon) agreed that the PRC would provide major assistance in modernization of Burmese naval facilities in return for building major naval facilities on Hainggyi Island and Great Coco Island. Since then, there has been a close correlation between the continued increase in the Myanmarese navy and the growing Chinese military presence in, and, to a great extent control over, Myanmar's coastal infrastructure. Chinese experts vastly improved and militarized the Myanmarese port facilities in Akyab, Kyaukpyu and Mergui -- all on the Bay of Bengal.

In the summer of 1994, General Li Jiulong, the commander of the PLA's Chengdu Military Region (CMR), visited Burma. The Chengdu MR is more than the command headquarters and major supply base for the Chinese troops in Tibet. Since the early 1990s, the CMR has also been responsible for the Chinese military supplies and assistance to Burma. These activities were but a component of a strategic activity of greater importance. Indeed, General Li paid special attention to Myanmar's naval facilities during his visit -- an important event considering that the Chengdu MR is landlocked. Indeed, it was during General's Li visit that Yangoon agreed that China would get the new naval bases in Hainggyi Island and Great Coco Island. Accordingly, writes Bodansky, China has installed a major maritime reconnaissance and electronic intelligence station on Great Coco Island. Along with the Small Coco Island where the Chinese Army is also building bases, these two islands, situated as these are in the Alexandra Channel between the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, provide a great opportunity to China to be based at a crucial point in traffic routes between the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca. The Coco Islands are also an ideal place for monitoring the major Indian naval facilities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and missile launches in the Chandipur of Balasore in Orissa and the satellites' launching at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. Overall, it also facilitates China in monitoring movements of the Indian Navy and other friendly navies throughout the eastern basin of the Indian Ocean, as well the overall western approaches to the Strait of Malacca.   In other words, through Myanmar, China is pursuing its strategic interests to have a clear access to the Indian Ocean. This view is further strengthened by the London International Institute of Strategic Studies observation that   "Burma could help China to extend its military reach into a region of vital importance to Asian economies" (Asiaweek-December 21, 2000).

It is worth recalling here that in May 1998, defence minister George Fernandes had publicly mentioned of (something that presented his numerous critics a big handle to target him) Beijing of helping Myanmar to install surveillance and communications equipment on the Coco Islands. Fernandes argued that Chinese defence strategy was working to encircle India. "China has provided Pakistan with both missile as well as nuclear know-how," he said. "China has its nuclear weapons stockpiled in Tibet right along our borders." "On the eastern frontier," the Minister continued, "the Chinese have trained and equipped the Myanmarese Army.... From 170,000 six years ago, its strength today is 450,000 and by the turn of the century, it will be half a million. Myanmar's population is only 42 million." Fernandes elaborated on this theme by claiming that 11 airstrips in Tibet had been lengthened to house new-generation Sukhoi combat aircraft, and argued that China must be perceived as a threat by "any person who is concerned with India's security."

Myanmar and China denied the accusations, but New Delhi's concerns were well founded. Available information reveals that in August 1993, Indian coastguards caught three boats 'fishing' close to the Andamans. The trawlers were flying Myanmarese flags, but the crew of 55 was Chinese. There was no fishing equipment on board - only radio-communication and depth-sounding equipment. The Chinese embassy in New Delhi intervened and the crew was released. It is also interesting to note, and this information was given to this writer by a responsible official at Port Blair on the condition of anonymity, that the then Chinese ambassador to India made a  "private" visit to the Andamans sometime in 1996-97 as a tourist), something that was not taken note of by the media. The timing of the ambassador's visit was significant.

Professor J. Mohan Malik made a perceptive point in an article in the Pioneer (December19, 2001) by writing that "Chinese strategists see Myanmar occupying the same place in the Chinese calculus of deterrence vis-à-vis India in South-Southeast Asia that Pakistan does in South-Southwest Asia". In fact, triangular relations among China, Myanmar and Pakistan are particularly disturbing to India.   Pakistan has signed a defence pact with China with the focus on joint defence research and production. Pakistan continues to receive IRBMs and missile assemblies from China, and China-facilitated supplies from North Korea. And what is most significant, Pakistan has invited China for development and construction of her strategic naval base at Gwadar on the Makran coast. This Pakistan-China defence project has far wider strategic significance; for it gives China access and basing facilities in the Indian Ocean and in close proximity to the Straits of Hormuz. It also amounts to maritime encirclement of India in the sense that with the presence at Gwadar at one end and at Cocos at the other, the Chinese Navy can pose few problems to India.

As regards the Pakistan-Myanmar nexus, it may be recalled that two Pakistani nuclear Scientists (Suleiman Asad and Mohammed Ali Mukhtar) had reportedly moved over to Myanmar in November 2001 when US intelligence officials were investigating the involvement of the Pak nuclear scientists with the Al Qaeda network.  This report assumes greater significance as Myanmar has acquired a nuclear reactor from Russia. Myanmar has officially confirmed in January 2002 that it is building a nuclear reactor.  Though the IAEA officials state that the reactor is unlikely to be suitable for production of nuclear weapons, the likelihood of transfer of know how by Pakistan cannot be ruled out.

Similarly, prior to General Pervez Musharraf's much-publicized visit to Myanmar (May 1-3, 2001) three Pakistani naval vessels - a submarine, a tanker and a destroyer- had made port calls to Myanmar. Incidentally, the Myanmar government had always been maintaining that no foreign vessels would be permitted to visit the country's ports. Be that as it may, the fact remains that Pakistan has a sinister motive in cultivating Myanmar for fomenting trouble in the North Eastern states of India.  Despite India's efforts in improving its relations with Myanmar with its proactive "Look East" policy, Pakistan and China exert considerable influence on Myanmar to foment trouble at any time. There are reports to indicate that these countries are already having an intelligence sharing agreement regarding India's force deployment in the North-East and the Bay of Bengal.  This is crucial especially in a war or war-like situation.


In the ultimate analysis, the success of India's  "Look East " policy depends critically on the monitoring and containment of the growing triangular relationship among China, Myanmar and Pakistan on the one hand and accelerating the momentum of multidimensional engagement with other Asia-Pacific countries on the other. And in task, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are destined to play a vital role. Secure and stable Andaman and Nicobar Islands (this requires, apart from military augmentation, infrastructural development and social stability) could be the staging post for an India looking to rediscover its great maritime and civilisational influence in the Asia-Pacific.

About the Author

Author of two books concerning Indian foreign policy, the author, formerly The Times of India's Diplomatic Correspondent, is writing, in his present capacity as a National Fellow with Indian Council of Historical Research, a book titled "Rediscovering the East: Evolution Of India's Look-East Policy".

This article has been reprinted with permission from the India Defence Review

Copyright © Bharat Rakshak 2002