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Our string of islands theory

India needs not merely a naval programme or even a maritime doctrine but a political plan for what it wants to do with its seas and how it seeks to project its oceanic influence, writes Ashok Malik.

ht-view Updated: Sep 02, 2014 00:34 IST
Ashok Malik
Ashok Malik

A re-imagining of how India sees the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is central to building its oceanic influence

Twice in recent weeks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent significant time on new acquisitions of the Indian Navy. He visited the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and then commissioned INS Kolkata, the largest warship built in India.

In speeches on these occasions, Modi spoke about bolstering maritime security for both military and trade purposes. This is crucial for India; after all, more than 90% of its international trade is dependent on the sea. Coming from a sea-faring society (Gujarat) Modi is instinctively more alive to these concerns than politicians from North India, schooled in the continentalism of Delhi, are.

India’s naval upgrade has been spoken about for decades. In the mid-1980s, there were exaggerated reports that Rajiv Gandhi’s government was readying for a massive naval augmentation. Worried by this, Australia’s navy demanded money and support from its government for a programme of modernisation that would stave off a potential Indian challenge. The challenge never emerged, but Australia’s admirals got the weapons and ships they wanted.

More recently, India has woken up to securing its claims as a paramount naval power in the Indian Ocean before the Chinese surge proved too much. The fact is the Chinese are not waiting for India. China has far more of an Indian Ocean naval presence than Indian opinion wants to acknowledge.

Frankly, the issue has to go beyond adding ships or building incremental capacities. India needs not merely a naval programme or even a maritime doctrine but a political plan for what it wants to do with its seas and how it seeks to project its oceanic influence.

Key to this would be a re-imagining of how India sees the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a prized piece of mid-ocean real estate that policy gurus in Delhi have consistently neglected and left unexploited.

India’s periphery has a network of what in the old days were called entrepôts, from Hong Kong to Dubai to Singapore. These are booming trade zones that once looked to (British) India for strategic direction. Free India vacated that space. What can it do now?

The idea of replicating a Dubai or Hong Kong model in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a long-standing one. It was never acted upon.

Given the growing Chinese footprint in the region and the beginnings of a new Indo-Pacific Great Game, a dramatic reformulation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands represents India’s last chance to stay a leader in the ocean it lends its name to.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the seat of India’s only tri-services command, led by the Indian Navy. Yet, a military presence alone will not do. It is a wonder that Thai beaches in the neighbourhood of the Islands attract millions of international tourists, but the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which even Thai tourism officials admit have better beaches, don’t.

More than just tourism, the Islands need to be seen as a commercial hub, a duty-free zone, with modern ports that ocean-liners and container ships can use with ease.

This is scarcely a new thought. In 2009, Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary, told an interesting story while speaking at an event in Port Blair: “More than 35 years ago I went to Hong Kong as an IFS probationer to learn Mandarin.

There I came across a brief but most interesting book written by one of the former Indian commissioners to Hong Kong, Shri Sivaramakrishnan.

He proposed that India develop the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a free trade zone a la Hong Kong, attracting investment from across the Southeast Asian region and becoming one of its key trade, shipping and transport hubs.

He pointed to the strategic location of the Islands, within striking distance of all the major trade and shipping centres and countries of the region — Singapore is only 950 km from Port Blair.

Yangon is 400 km and Phuket is also about the same distance. Taking into account the major traffic routes traversing the Islands or being flanked by them, he pointed to the possibility of developing Port Blair and the Campbell Bay in the Great Nicobar into major seaports.

Today you could add the great potential for tourism as well. Times have changed but Commissioner Sivaramakrishnan’s ideas still have resonance.”

The creation of a new city and infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — this could be India’s Pudong, India’s Singapore, India’s Hawaii, whatever you want — will provide a massive business opportunity to Indian companies. Intelligently done, it could attract investment from major Asean countries and Japan.

Dual-use (civilian and military) docking and ship-repair facilities could play host to cargo ships from everywhere and naval ships from friendly countries.

With strategic precision, this project could lead to a re-evaluation of India as a serious power in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian region.

There is one other point for Modi to consider. When it comes to national security, Pakistan represents a tactical challenge for India; China is the longer-term and strategic challenge.

In some senses, the defence of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh lies in the Indo-Pacific, the Indian Ocean and in Asean waters, just off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. What India does — or doesn’t do — on those Islands will determine its destiny in the 21st century.

(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.)