Insights into Editorial: New ripples in Andaman Sea
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second visit to Singapore this year is nicely framed by the largest ever naval exercise between the two nations (India and Singapore) in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
The exercises, called the Simbex, began 25 years ago as India embarked on the so-called Look East Policy that sought a renewed economic, political and military engagement with South East Asia.
The two sides hope that these bilateral exercises will eventually involve the participation of other South East Asian nations and form the basis for a cooperative security framework in the heart of the Indo-Pacific.
Indo-Pacific is also a sum of its many sub-regions that include the East China Sea, South China Sea and South Pacific to the east of the Malacca Straits as well as the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and the waters of Africa to the west.
PM Modi outlined India’s broad vision for the Indo-Pacific in his address to the Shangri La Dialogue, an annual forum that brings the region’s defence establishments together.
The PM’s speech on the Indo-Pacific helped bring the new geopolitical construct to the centre of India’s worldview.
A “stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region” is an “important pillar” of India’s strategic partnership with the United States.
The emphasis shown by the US on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ can be termed as its strategic initiative towards India.
ASEAN is one of the crucial building blocks of the Indo-Pacific. United States, India, Japan, and Australia the “Quad” group is emphasizing “Indo-Pacific” as a new strategic space.
Brief History about Andaman Sea:
The consolidation of British hegemony in the Indian Ocean at the dawn of the 19th century and its accommodation with France (in Indo-China) and the Netherlands (in the East Indies, now known as Indonesia) left the Andaman Sea in a tranquil state.
The extended peace was shattered during the Second World War when Japan occupied large parts of East Asia, ousted Great Britain from Singapore and raced towards Northeast India through Burma.
Imperial Japan also occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It needed a massive collaborative effort to reverse the aggression.
After the Second World War, the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal became marginal to the power play between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War.
Now, the rise of China and Beijing’s projection of naval power way beyond its home waters is beginning to put the Andaman Sea back in play.
Importance of Sub-region of the Andaman Sea:
One such sub-region the Andaman Sea is likely to preoccupy India in the coming years. The Andaman Sea is flanked by the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands in the West, Myanmar to the north, the Thai-Malay peninsula to the east, and the Sumatra island to the south.
It funnels into the Straits of Malacca that connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The large amount of shipping that enters the Andaman Sea from the east heads to Singapore, from where it turns the Pacific Ocean.
Andaman Sea is rapidly regaining its strategic salience. At the dawn of the modern era, many of the geopolitical contestations involving the Portuguese, Dutch, French and the British took place in the waters of the Andaman Sea.
Recent Actions by China in Sub-region of Andaman Sea:
Beijing signed an agreement with Naypyidaw on building a deep-water port at Kyaukpyu. It will be an important part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which would connect Kyaukpyu to the Yunnan Province through rail and highways.
China already built an oil and gas pipeline system that moves hydrocarbons from Kyaukpyu to inland China.
Thailand ordered a feasibility study of the Kra Canal, which will cut through the Kra Isthmus and link the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand. There is a push from china to launch the Project.
Beijing has sold submarines to Thailand and Bangladesh and its military cooperation with other littoral states of the Andaman Sea has grown steadily. Recently, China conducted naval exercises with Thailand and Malaysia.
Building strategic infrastructure, like China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the Kra Canal allows Beijing reduce its current dependence on the Malacca Straits and access the Indian Ocean directly.
As the waters of the Andaman Sea turn turbulent, India too has begun to accelerate the development of civilian and military infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Island Chain.
It has also stepped up political engagement with the Andaman littoral states. But Delhi’s pace might turn out to be too slow to cope with the rapid strategic transformation of the Andaman Sea.
Therefore, ASEAN must form the geographic core to any Indo-Pacific architecture.
India must increase its strategic alignment with the other countries in Indo-Pacific region in order to balance the security concerns emanating from China’s aggressive stance.
Build-up of India’s naval capabilities, if India has to emerge as one of the main players in the Indo-Pacific. Freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law will make our sea lanes the pathway to prosperity.