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Security Issues South Asia » China In South Asia » Geo-Strategic Importance of India's Island Territories
Akshat Upadhyay

Jan 29, 2013

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Geo-Strategic Importance of India's Island Territories
and Implications for National Security


1.    The Indian Ocean Region(IOR) is a vast expanse of land and sea mass, coming in third just after the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Through this immense monolith, flows the lifeblood of the two most rapidly developing economies of the world ie India and China as well as the South East Asian miracle that is the ASEAN.The importance of IOR can be gauged from the fact that nearly 17 million tons of oil transits the region everyday.The presence of 36 key and 191 littoral countries comprising stable nations such as Australia, Singapore , Saudi Arabia to the al Qaeda infested Somalia, Yemen to the hell holes of Eritrea and Mozambique makes it one of the most strategically sensitive areas in the world.Also the IOR boasts of an impressive 58 per cent and 46 per cent2 of the world’s estimated crude oil and natural gas reserves, respectively. The economic as well as strategic relevance of this region is augmented by three defining attributes: the existing primary and evolving secondary locations of oil and gas production; the transportation of crude, refined products, and liquefied gases via sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and pipelines; and the primary refining, storage, and re-distribution nodes that are vital to the region’s economic productivity, particularly that of the developing states.

2.    The entry to this coveted region from the East as well as the West is controlled by nine major bottlenecks, namely Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal, Strait of Bab el Mandeb, Malacca Strait, Lombok Strait, Sunda Strait, Six Degree Channel, Eight Degree Channel and Cape of Good Hope.These strategic ‘chokepoints’ channelize the energy traffic into specific Sea Lines Of Communication(SLOCs). It is in this context that the sentinel islands of Andaman and Nicobar in the East and Lakshadweep in the West act as gateways for entry into the resource rich region of the Indian Ocean. The significance of these islands cannot be overemphasized in light of the fact that the southernmost island in the Great Nicobar chain of islands is just 90 km from the northernmost island of the Indonesian archipelago, a country that is one of the pivotal partners in India’s Look East Policy.

3.    Clash OfThe Titans.Both the countries have impressive growth rates to show for it. India has posted 7.4%6 average annual growth rate from 2002 to 2012 and has a GDP worthUS$ 1.848 trillion(2011)7while China with a growth rate of 10.73% is now a multi trillion dollar economy(US$ 7.38 trillion), surpassing Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2011, after the United States .

4.    A rat race has ensued between the two Asian giants to procure new sources of crude and natural gas as well as optimum utilization of available ones to satiate their rapacious energy needs. India’s Look East policy, formulated since 1991(coincidentally the year of the liberalization of the Indian economy) has been an effort by the Indian policy makers to build up a credible and strategic partnership with ASEAN partly to counter the influence of China, and partly to bring stability to the region in addition to countering illicit drug trafficking, poaching, piracy and pollution. Apart from interacting with ASEAN through the ASEAN Regional Forum(ARF), India has reached out to the South East Asian countries through the East Asian Summit(EAS), Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation(BIMSTEC) and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation(MGC).

5.    India has especially been wary of China’s so called ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, a supposed encirclement of India through establishment of bases and observation/listening posts in the littoral countries of both the Bay of Bengal as well as the Arabian Sea. Interestingly the siting of the ‘pearls’ has more to do with China securing her SLOCs rather than threatening India in its perceived backyard. Furthermore the much hyped‘peaceful rise’ and ‘benign intent’ has put many minds in a quandary about its real intentions. These include the strategic port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hainan Island, the much hyped about submarine base for the Chinese, Marao Atoll in Maldives, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Kyaukphyu port in Myanmar, KraIsthumus in Thailand,

6.    India’s ‘Diamonds’ Against China’s Pearls. India has responded with its own diamonds.TheAsian highway project is expected to link up Singapore with New Delhi in South Asia via Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh city, Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Vientiane, Chiang Mai, Yangon, Mandalay, Kalemyo, Tamu, Dhaka and Calcutta.

7.    More example of India’s counter against the pearls are:

(a)    Construction of the Kaladan Multi modal Transit Transport facility establishing connectivity between Indian ports and Sittwe port in Myanmar through riverine transport and road links in Mizoram12.Construction, upgrading and land resurfacing of the 160 Km long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road.Upgradation of Rhi-Tidim and Rhi-Falam roads is also in progress.

(b)    Numerous naval bases in continental India: Karwar, Kochi, Mumbai, Vizag.Strengthening of military as well as economic links with island nations such as Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives and Madagascar. India has already positioned its two helicopters permanently in Maldives for enhancing its own reconnaissance and surveillance facilities. Moreover, India is helping setting up radar stations on
all 26 atolls of Maldives for an integrated radar picture. Indian Coast Guard will fly regular Dornier sorties over the country13.

(c)    India’s new found partnership with EU, US, Russia, Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, to name a few, has the potential to develop into a greater umbrella enveloping China’s pearls in the East and handle its vicious neighbor in the West.

8.    Possible UsageOf Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep Chain of Islands.The Andaman and Nicobar islands straddle the EastWest SLOCs and sit at a very strategic position. The establishment of the tri services Andaman and Nicobar Command (earlier FORTAN) was the first step towards securing these islands as a bastion against possible attacks by irregular or conventional forces. Some of the steps/options available with India are mentioned below.

(a)    Blockade of Straits of Malacca, Lombok or Sundaduring times of crisis by the Indian Navy, based out of Port Blair, in conjunction with the navies of Indonesia, Vietnam and other ASEAN nations. Energy convoys of China and other nations depend heavily on these routes for daily transshipment of crude oil and gas besides other important raw materials.

(b)    Using the Andaman and Nicobar as well as the Lakshadweep islands as a group of static aircraft carriers, and basing long range interdiction and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for projecting a cutting edge offensive capability, looking both East and West. The location of these forward bases, around 900 km from the Indian mainland would give these aircraft the much sought - after massive combat radius, without resorting to air to air refueling.

(d)    Just as India has taken up the important task of construction of 26 radar stations on the atolls of Maldives, it should give a thought to the possibility of constructing radar stations, listening posts as well as monitoring stations on both the Lakshadweep as well as the Andaman and Nicobar chain to monitor all activity in the IOR.

(e)    Construction of underground missile silos, hardened hangar facilities for aircraft are some of the options that can be explored on the island chains. However given the frail ecology and the lifting up of the Andaman islands by 0.60-0.90cm during the tsunami of 2004 as well as their lateral shift Southwestwards by 4-4.5m, it will be a risky undertaking16.

(f)    The indigenous air defense system Aakash and otherAD assets can be deployed to give an all round air cover to these islands.

(h)    India can explore the possibility of building an underground submarine base in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Basing submarines here would enhance the strike range of most of our missiles facing East, and vindicate the operationalisation of India’s nuclear triad.

(j)    Joint patrolling of the straits with other regional navies such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia to further interoperability and maritime synergy as well as port calls. India has reached out to Myanmar in this respect and a Myanmar ship made its first ever port call in India.

(k)    Jamming stations could be constructed all along the island chains, to counter any electromagnetic interference during times of conflict .

9.    India’s Exclusive Economic Zone and Counter Piracy by the Indian Navy.An exclusive economic zone(EEZ) is a seazone prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea over which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind.It stretches from the seaward edge of the state's territorial sea out to 200 nm from its coast. The Andaman and Nicobar as well as the Lakshadweep chain of islands has given India an EEZ well over two million sq km.

10.    The piracy threat from the Horn of Africa nations, especially Somalia has manifested itself in the form of small fast attack crafts threatening merchant vessels both near the Gulf of Aden as well as the Malacca Straits. The pirates also use captured merchant ships as ‘mother vessels’ to mount attacks on unsuspecting merchant ships. India and China have both taken an aggressive stand on this issue. Indian Navy warships commenced anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden from 23 Oct 08. In addition to escorting Indian flagged ships, ships of other countries have also been escorted. Merchant ships are currently being escorted along the entire length of the (490 nm long and 20 nm wide) Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) that has been designated for use by all merchant vessels. A total of 1181 ships (144 Indian flagged and 1037 foreign flagged from different countries) have been escorted by IN ships in the Gulf of Aden since Oct 08.

12.    Development of Lakshadweep as a Possible Anti Piracy Centre. The Lakshadweep islands have witnessed increasing number of pirate attacks in the past couple of years. Some of them are as follows:

(a)    December 5, 2010. Six Somali pirates hijacked the Bangladeshi flag bearing ship M V JahanMoni some 67 nautical miles off the Lakshadweep Islands. The ship with a crew of 26 men was on its way to Europe with 41,000 tonnes of nickel ore onboard22.
(b)    March 2010. A piracy bid on a Maltese ship was foiled by the Indian Navy 200 nautical miles off Lakshadweep Islands in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
(c)    May 2010. Eight Somali pirates were reportedly caught and detained by the Indian navy off the Lakshadweep Islands.
(d)    December 2010. Indian Navy apprehended a dhow with 19 foreigners including 15 Pakistani nationals off Bitra Islands in the Lakshadweep archipelago.

14.     The most spectacular attack on the Indian soil, the Mumbai massacre was carried out through the sea route. There were also reports of extremists trying to establish bases on these islands due to their proximity with Muslim island nations such as Maldives and the fact that most of the islands in the Lakshadweep chain are uninhabited, 26 to be precise23. With an unusually high proportion of Muslim population, these bases are ideal launch pads for attacks against the Indian peninsula. Shaken up by its inefficiency in detecting the terrorist threat that engulfed Mumbai, the Indian government initiated a series of measures such as setting up of coastal police stations, procurement of fast interceptor boats, increasing its presence on these islands.However progress has been despairingly slow. Setting up of an international piracy centre, akin to the Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecution & Intelligence Coordination Centre (RAPPICC) being built in Seychelles24, may act as a catalyst to speed up the modernization of anti piracy measures, so desperately required to monitor the gap between the Minicoy islands and Maldives. A similar effort can be made in the Bay of Bengal on the Andaman and Nicobar chain.

15.    Relation With Littoral Nations. Since the inception of the Look East Policy in 1991, India has tried to strengthen its relations with the India Ocean Rim countries. One big example is the Milan exercises being hosted by the Indian Navy near the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This multi nation exercise, initiated in 1995, features the littoral Indian Ocean countries as well as nations like Australia. 2012 saw the largest ever participation in these exercise with navies of 14 nations taking part to simulate combating maritime terrorism, piracy, poaching as well as humanitarian and search and rescue operations and "capacity building. This time the lineup boasted of navies of Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius. The interoperability and the synergy that these exercises build up prove essential when combating international piracy.

15.     India has also cosied up to its South East Asian neighbors with a slew of pacts such as the ARF,EAS, BIMSTEC and MGC. India’s improving relations with US may have a positive effect in the future with India hoping for a show of strength by the US naval garrison in Diego Garcia, if ever faced with a belligerent power. Though it might sound like a far- fetched fantasy, in today’s age of rapidly changing alliances, impossible is just another word in the dictionary. India should, therefore get its act together and seriously look at its sentinels, both in the East and West as opportunities to project its power, both soft and military from the Gulf of Oman to the Straits of Malacca, its proverbial backyard. Some of the alternatives given above may be utilized while some may not, but it is important to explore the whole spectrum of options to get a holistic, all encompassing view of the subject. Though it is said that the days of conventional wars are over and the future envisages only asymmetric warfare or hybrid warfare, it is only wishful thinking to assume that the ‘benign rise’ of our great neighbor in the East will remain benign for so long. Our Western neighbor with which we’ve never had fraternal relations and which seems to be slipping more and more into anarchy with each passing day, it is only a matter of time that we find ourselves amidst a stalemate that we cannot handle. The island chains of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep afford us opportunities to keep out our hostile neighbors, and if necessary, teach them a lesson in power projection,

1.    “High sea: Indian Elephant versus Chinese Dragon”,Article by the India and Russia Report,, Accessed on 08 May 2012.
2.    “Indian Ocean Rising: Maritime Security and Policy Challenges”, Chapter 6 of the article by Stimson Accessed on 08 May 2012.
3.    “RajendraChola I”, Article on Wikipedia, Accessed on 10 Jul 2012.
4.    “Srivijaya Kingdom”, Accessed on 08 May 2012.
5.    “Under Two Ensigns: 1945-1950” E Book by Rear Admiral Satyindra Singh, AVSM(Retd),, Accessed on 12 Jun 2012.
6.    “India’s GDP Growth Rate”,, Accessed on 16 Jul 2012.
7.    “India GDP:1.848T USD for 2011”,www., Accessed on 16 Jul 2012.
8.    “PLAN’s New Pearl”, Article by Dr Lawrence Prabhakar as part of Chennai Strategic Affairs,, Accessed on 14 August 2012.
9.    “Chinese moves in Maldives worry India”, Article in Economic Times dated 10 Oct 2011,www., Accessed on 24 May 2012.
10.    “Unstringing China’s Pearls”, Article in Asian Times Online by Billy Tea, /MC11AdO2, Accessed on 14 August 2012.
11.    “China’s Pipelines In Myanmar” IDSA comment by Shivananda H, Report by Institute of Defense and Analyses,,Accessed on 24 May 2102.
12.    “Kaladan Multi -  modal Transit Transport Project”,, Accessed on 12 August 2012.
13    “The Maldivian Question”, Article published in CLAWS on 18 Feb 2012,, Accessed on 06 Jun 2012.
13.    “The Geostrategic Implications of the Competitionfor Natural Resources:The Transatlantic Dimension”, Article published as a part ofTransatlantic paper series by Francois Heisbourg, /publications/geostrategic-implications-competition-natural-resources-transatlantic-dimension, Accessed on 14 Jul 2012.
14.    “Govt all set to procure 126 French fighter jets”, News report on IBN Live,, Accessed on 24 May 2012.
15.    “Implications for Conservation of Coral Reefs in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India”,, Accessed on 06 Jun 2012.
16.    “Look East, Look South: Backward Border Regions in India and China”, An article by SushilKhanna of Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata,, Accessed on 14 Jul 2012.
17.    “Chinese Military Bases in Burma: The Explosion of a Myth”, Article published by Andrew Selth in Regional Outlook of Griffith Asia Institute,, Accessed on 14 Aug 2012.
18.    “He also said that, when he was Commander-in-Chief of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command, he did not observe any Chinese presence or activity on Great Coco Island. “Interview with Admiral ArunPrakash, Chief of the Naval Staff, Indian Navy”, Asian Defence Journal (October 2005), p. 22. Also relevant is “A&N Islands – Vision 2025: Keynote Address by CNS and Chairman COSC, August 2005”, Indian Navy, available at, Accessed on 14 Aug 2012.
19    “SHADE”, Article published in Oceans Beyond Piracy,, Accessed on 06 Jun 2012.
20.    “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”,, Accessed on 06 May 2012.
21.    “MV JahanMoni pirated in the Somali Basin”, Article on official website of EUNAVFOR,, Accessed on 14 Aug 2012.
22.    “Lakshadweep”, Article on Wikipedia,, Accessed on 08 May2012.
23.    “Construction begins on anti-piracy centre in the Seychelles”, Article published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,, Accessed on 14 Aug 2012.

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