India moved to expedite plans for basing additional military forces, including facilities for additional warships, aircraft, missile batteries and infantry soldiers at the strategically-located Andaman Islands.
• The Ladakh stand-off with China has catalysed India’s efforts to strengthen its military presence at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI).
• The idea of militarising the Andaman Islands isn’t new. Since the 1980s, there have been suggestion of building strategic muscle at the ANI.
• A section of India’s diplomatic community has opposed militarising the ANI, arguing that turning the islands into a strategic-military garrison would militarise the littorals.
• When India first began developing the ANI in the mid-1980s, Malaysia and Indonesia had been wary. Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur feared that India would use its military facilities in the ANI to dominate its region, and project power east of Malacca.
• India’s willingness to keep its security presence at the strategic islands to a minimum assured many in Asia that its motives were benign.
• Today, amid growing threats from China, New Delhi seems open to the idea of militarising the islands.
The Indian navy’s plans to offer logistical support to partner navies does not include its ANI facilities.
Four years after signing a logistics pact with the United States (US), its navy ships still have no access the ANI.
France, Singapore and Australia — India’s other logistics partners — too haven’t had their warships repaired or replenished at Indian island facilities.
While China’s presence in the Indian Ocean is growing, Beijing hasn’t so far militarised key Belt and Road Initiative outposts in the Bay of Bengal i.e. Hambantota, Chittagong and Kyaukpyu.
As Indian warships have held exercises with the US and Japanese navy in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi’s resolve to counter China in its maritime backyard has been evident.
If New Delhi pushes for greater military presence in the ANI, Beijing could well seek military access in friendly Bay countries.
To counter China’s expanding footprint in India’s sphere of maritime interest, India must permit Japan, Australia and France and US to build strategic capabilities at the ANI.
Strengthening collaboration with Indo-Pacific partners at the ANI is very much an option for Indian decision-makers to consider.
India must also take into account the downsides of offering foreign navies access to its island facilities.
The final decision should be based on a dispassionate weighing of costs and benefits.