Countering China: The strategic importance of Andaman and Nicobar

Gurgaon, Haryana, IndiaWritten By: Pushpesh PantUpdated: Jan 04, 2019, 12:23 PM IST
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File photo. Photograph:(AFP)

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From Pakistan to Sri Lanka to Nepal many of India's neighbours are grunting and groaning under the back-breaking burden of Chinese ‘kindness’ - the debt trap.

It is not uncommon for India to be vilified as the ‘Big Brother’ by many of its neighbours in South Asia. Ironically, they forget that all of them have to deal with a, not always fraternal, neighbour larger than India and far less predictable. 

Meanwhile, India and China Armies marked New Year with ceremonial border personnel meetings. Such confidence-building measures have never yielded expected dividends on the Wagah Border and perhaps some caution is not out of place. 

There was a time, not long back, when at Doklam, the troops engaged each other in ‘Eye Ball to Eye Ball Confrontation’ that threatened to escalate into hostilities. It isn’t clear even now who blinked first but fortunately the crisis passed without a clash of arms.

But let us not forget that before tension was reduced both sides were engaged in ugly undiplomatic exchanges of boasts and warning threats.

What complicates matters is POTUS’s announcement that he is enacting enabling legislation to forge a closer strategic relationship with India in the context of (the unnamed) looming threat in the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese are hardly likely to react softly to this development. With its sudden interest in the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar islands, the experts, sympathetic to the US, have lost no time in articulating a vision for ‘integrating’ the archipelago with the larger Indian design for the future. 

They admit that the challenge to establish a credible Aerial and Naval presence in this ecologically fragile and ethnographically extremely sensitive region presents complex challenges. The experts further add that others elsewhere have managed to strike a reasonable balance. In other words, India is being encouraged to advance undeterred. 

There is something about the Andamans that stirs up tidal waves of patriotic pride and excites the imagination. Memories are yet green of Freedom Fighters who were exiled here to what’s then a dreaded penal colony. Netaji’s INA unfurling the Tricolour declaring freedom from British yoke too is among our most cherished moments in history. Having said that should we not ponder if it is necessary to ravage a pristine environment or disturb indigenous tribes perched on the verge of extinction pursuit of some ‘Imperial’ quest undertaken hastily responding to foreign promptings?

Doesn’t a tri-service command already operate from a base in Nicobar to deter forces inimical to India? It isn’t easy to understand how the ‘integration’ of these islands is going to reinforce existing arrangements.  

To some, the timing may appear opportune to embark on a pro-active course as from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to Nepal many of the smaller neighbours are grunting and groaning under the back-breaking burden of Chinese ‘kindness’. They have all been lured into a debt trap seductively laid out as economic and technical assistance projects.

But India would be wise to realise that none of them is really in a position to rescind these deals done under duress or distress. A country like Pakistan will eternally remain in denial and disbelief. Bereft of other friends and benefactors its rulers know well that there is no way they can afford to displease the neighbour that is virtually their life support system. 

Most Indians when asked to name next door neighbours, forget those ‘united to us by the sea’. Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore are only a few nautical miles away from Indian territory- all are proximate maritime neighbours on the periphery of the Andaman Sea. Much before we fix our gaze on the ‘Pacific Rim’ we better explore the coinciding national interests in this community.  

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)