Tiger Outsmarts Dragon in Andaman Waters

In the clamour for providing humanitarian assistance, India asserts itself as a maritime power, as the strategic relevance of the Andaman Islands emerges

Published: 23rd March 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd March 2014 08:32 AM   |  A+A-

The mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 has triggered a cat-and-mouse game between neighbours India and China in the Indian Ocean. China proposed to help in the search for the missing jetliner in the Andaman Sea, but the idea was politely dismissed by India.

In the midst of the clamour for providing humanitarian assistance, India asserted itself as a major maritime power as the strategic importance of the Andaman Islands emerged.

China, under tremendous domestic pressure to find MH370, pushed hard to get access to the waters around Andaman and Nicobar Islands that straddles Malacca Strait, a major maritime choke point key to Beijing’s energy security. The aircraft had 150 Chinese nationals among the 239 passengers on board when it went missing on March 8.

But China’s bid to get a foothold in India’s backyard was nipped in the bud by New Delhi, which does not want the Chinese to send warships close to its listening post, INS Baaz in Campbell Bay, in the strategically located 572-island archipelago.

India turned down China’s offer to send four warships, including two frigates, to the Andaman Sea to carry out the search.

An Indian official said both Malaysia and China are aware of the fact that under the international maritime search and rescue mandate, the Indian Ocean region is India’s responsibility.

This bid by China to venture close to India comes after a recent deployment of its nuclear-powered submarine in the Indian Ocean and amidst regular forays by its submarines and warships to the Gulf of Aden on the pretext of anti-piracy operations.

China had for the first time ventured into the Indian Ocean in 2007-08 using the anti-piracy operations as a reason and have since maintained a presence.

“China’s interest could be some domestic pressure, as most of the passengers on board the MH370 were Chinese and India was doing the maximum search. Many nations were happy, particularly Malaysia, that India was deploying its latest patrol plane P8-I in the search,” the official said.

“But it is also true that if warships and other military assets are allowed to come closer to Indian territory, it does provide an opportunity to snoop around, which India would not like,” the official added.

Primarily, it is about who is garnering credit for the search work, though there were security concerns too, and ceding space.

The MH370 went off the air traffic control radars on March 8 after flying out from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing. After conducting extensive searches in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, the search focus shifted to the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea after five days on March 13.

That’s when global attention shifted to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Less known to the outside world, Andaman and Nicobar are territories that give India the leverage to emerge as the gate-keeper to the Malacca Strait, which witnesses the maximum container traffic from and to the Western Pacific.

Over 500 islands in the archipelago are uninhabited, but its capital Port Blair is home to the only tri-services operational command of the Indian armed forces that has assets from the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard.

The chain of islands sit astride the 200-km-wide Six-Degree Channel between Indonesia’s Aceh and Great Nicobar through which the bulk of container traffic passes, and the 150-km-wide Ten-Degree Channel that separates Andaman and Nicobar Islands but is used by a much smaller number of cargo ships.

India is converting the Andaman and Nicobar Command into a major amphibious warfare hub, setting up full-fledged training facilities and basing a sea-and-land fighting unit to provide teeth to its capability to take the battle into enemy shores.

The tri-services command came up in 2001, but already has 15 surface warships to support amphibious operations, such as landing ship tank and landing pontoon dock that can carry fully-armed troops, military trucks, battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers on board and land them on the enemy’s shores. The islands also have an Army Brigade comprising three battalions.

India is also beefing up its military infrastructure and force levels in the islands, which stretches about 800 km from North to South, bringing with it the advantages of 12 nautical mile maritime territory and 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

The plans, approved at a meeting of the country’s security top brass in 2011, involved the ramping of Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard infrastructure, including establishing the coastal radar network.

There is a growing realisation in India that the Andaman and Nicobar islands, apart from Lakshadweep on the West, hold the key to dominating the vital maritime zones and securing the economic and strategic interests, apart from boosting engagements with friendly countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and the Maldives.

The naval air bases at Port Blair and the air force base in Car Nicobar too are being upgraded to facilitate fighter jets, helicopters and heavy transport planes, including the potent Sukhois.

The Shibpur airstrip in North Andaman is being extended from 3,200 feet to 12,000 feet for day-night operations.

India has sent its two military planes- the Navy’s Boeing P8-I for long range maritime surveillance and the Air Force’s Lockheed Martin C-130J- to Kuala Lumpur for carrying out aerial searches.

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