PORT BLAIR, India: India and Japan are in talks to collaborate on upgrading civilian infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian archipelago seen as a critical asset to counter China’s efforts to expand its maritime reach into the Indian Ocean.
The first project being discussed is a modest one — a 15-megawatt diesel power plant on South Andaman Island, as described in a proposal submitted late last month to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But the collaboration signals a significant policy shift for India, which has not previously accepted offers of foreign investment on the archipelago. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are northwest of the Strait of Malacca, offering control of a so-called choke point that is one of China’s greatest marine vulnerabilities.
It is also testimony to the unfolding relationship between India and Japan, which is also funding a $744 million road building project in the northeastern Indian border regions of Mizoram, Assam and Meghalaya. Like the Andaman and Nicobar chain, the northeastern region is a strategic area that has remained relatively undeveloped because of its separation from the mainland.
Japan’s marshaling of official development assistance in the region has drawn less attention than the effort that China calls “One Belt, One Road,” a network of roads, railways and ports intended to link China to the rest of Asia and to Europe.
CreditGautam Singh/Associated Press
But it fits logically into the web of strategic projects taking shape as Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India enters into closer relationships with Japan, Australia and the United States, as well as regional powers like Vietnam, to counter China’s growing influence.
A senior Indian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said that China’s project would be answered by “a more decentralized, local but organic response.”
The official described proposed infrastructure projects in the Andamans as “not of a big scale, and not of a big value,” but added that New Delhi is intent on developing its “frontier” regions.
“The idea that the frontier should be left undeveloped, I think people have rejected that approach,” the official said. “There is a realization that it doesn’t help to leave part of any part of India undeveloped.”
Japan’s vision for contributions in the island chain goes far beyond the proposed power plant. The plan was submitted in Tokyo more than a year after Japan’s ambassador made a visit to Port Blair on South Andaman Island and, in a meeting with the territory’s top official, offered financing for “bridges and ports.”
Akio Isomata, minister for economic affairs in the Japanese Embassy, said the country’s aid agency, Japan International Cooperation Agency, could only respond to “formal requests” from the Indian government.
He added that Japan would consider “any other requests” on the Andaman and Nicobar chain or elsewhere and was eager to use official development assistance to enhance India’s “connectivity” with countries that are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
“We usually start with small projects and go bigger,” he said.
He said construction of the power station could start in the next fiscal year, which begins in April.
The Andaman and Nicobar chain is made up of 572 islands, all but 34 of them uninhabited, stretching around 470 miles north to south.
Used as a penal colony by the British Raj, the island chain was occupied by Japan for three years during World War II, a period that older islanders recall with dread. Jawaharlal Nehru, a former prime minister of India, secured the archipelago for his country in the hurried distribution of property that accompanied the British withdrawal from the subcontinent, beating out bids by Australia and Pakistan.
The islands’ importance has increased along with China’s naval expansion. The chain’s location makes it an ideal base for tracking naval movements in the Strait of Malacca, a long, narrow funnel between Malaysia and Indonesia. The strait provides passage for China’s fuel imports from Africa and the Middle East, around 80 percent of its total fuel imports.
Nevertheless, change has come slowly to the islands, where almost all the undeveloped land is set aside for indigenous tribes and wildlife. A plan to lay undersea optical fiber cable from Chennai on India’s east coast, so that residents can finally have high-speed Internet access, has been under discussion for more than a decade. Until last year, no flights landed after dark because there were no runway lights at the Port Blair airport.
Defense analysts from the West regard the island chain with envy and a degree of confusion.
“Almost every year, I see some senior Indian military official say we have major, major plans in store for the Andamans, and you’re going to see them soon,” said Jeff M. Smith, author of “Cold Peace,” a book on the Chinese-Indian rivalry. “Everybody waits for the big story to hit on the Andamans, year after year, and it doesn’t happen.”
A decision to accept Japanese investment there, he said, “would be a sign that the Modi government is getting out of this feedback loop and moving on some of these aspirations.”
India has taken “serious note” of the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean in recent years, Adm. Robin K. Dhowan, the chief of India’s navy staff, told a news channel in 2014. In January, India announced that it would deploy Israeli-made aerial “Searcher” drones and two Boeing P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, developed for anti-submarine warfare, to the Andaman and Nicobar chain.
Boeing P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft
Airstrips at the northern and southern tips of the archipelago are being lengthened to accommodate the long-range surveillance planes.
Japan is hardly the only country interested in taking a role in developing the island chain. India and the United States are said to be close to concluding a maritime logistics agreement, meaning that U.S. ships might be allowed to make port calls in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the future, defense analysts say.
The chain’s location provides a “perfect geographic position” for maritime aerial surveillance, said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University.
“If India were more open to allowing friendly foreign countries access and awareness in the Andamans, it would find them more forthcoming as well,” he said.
The front page of the Andaman Express, a daily newspaper, is typically devoted to small-town news about motorcycle accidents and stove explosions. But a recent report on the presence of a Chinese naval submarine in Andaman waters mentioned, almost as an aside, that the archipelago “would become the primary target of the People’s Liberation Army if China and India go to war.”
Talk like that has brought an edge of apprehension to the quiet life on the island, said R V R Murthy, a professor of history at Mahatma Gandhi Government College. Murthy lives on a hilltop, and in January, when officials in New Delhi announced the positioning of aerial drones at Port Blair’s airport, he could peer down from his house and spot them.
“In the old days,” he said, a little wistfully, “this was the safest place in the world.”
USS Theodore Roosevelt, right, and Japanese Maritime Self-defense Force JS Fuyuzuki, center, transit alongside the Indian tanker INS Shakti during a replenishment-at-sea exercise Oct. 18, 2015, in the Indian Ocean.
China President Xi Jinping meets Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, January 23, 2016. Photo by Reuters
by Brian TooheyThe main goal of the defence white paper from Malcolm Turnbull’s government is to support a military build-up by United States and its allies to restrain China’s provocative behaviour as a rising power in the South China Sea. The intention is laudable. But it is not always easy to prevent heightened military preparations on all sides from escalating into an arms race that ends badly. Which is why a bigger, indisputably difficult, international diplomatic effort is needed in parallel with the arms build-up to lower the risks of an unintended full-scale war that crashes the global economy and kill millions.
Without this two-track approach, the overwhelming focus will remain on exerting more military pressure to modify China’s behaviour. The danger is that China will believe exaggerated claims about its military capacity to act with immunity. There are no guarantees, but an intense diplomatic effort could reinforce the US-led military message that China has more to gain by pursuing its professed commitment to Confucian notions of international harmony.
Australia has a lot of stake, not least in maintaining China as its biggest trading partner. This is not a matter of letting “grubby” commercial considerations override grand strategic thinking. It is merely a reminder that glib talk about giving China a “bloody nose” in an offshore battle will not automatically make it skulk off and hide forever. Prudent planning must take account of the possibility that a humiliated China could respond by greatly improving its relatively weak forces and retaliate much more damagingly in future.
Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation published estimates in 2015 showing China spent 1.3 per cent of GDP on defence in 2014 and the United States, 3.5 per cent. DIO concedes other estimates for China are higher. Even so, the white paper’s projected Australian spending of 2.0 per cent is not trivial in comparison.
China faces two big strategic disadvantages. One is that 80 per cent of its oil imports go through the easily blockaded Strait of Malacca. The other is that the combined military strength of its potential adversaries is superior beyond its borders. (This doesn’t apply to the horrendous task of invading the mainland.)
China would attract less concern if it had not become much more assertive in pushing claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea that it inherited from the previous Nationalist government. Although it has a right to make these claims, as do other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, there is no excuse for installing missiles on artificially created islands.
Turnbull correctly notes that China’s behaviour is counterproductive. Convincing its leadership otherwise will be hard, but stranger things have happened in international relations.
Perhaps Turnbull helped by saying the US should ratify the Law of the Sea Convention if it wants China to follow international dispute settlement procedures. His own white paper’s stress on a rules-based global order would also be more convincing if he conceded Australia violated these rules in the invasion of Iraq.
Given its heavy reliance on international trade, China has no motive to interfere with commercial shipping. Yet this is often conflated with its objections to military ships passing within a 12-mile limit of disputed territory. While these particular disputes don’t directly threaten Australia, it has a strong interest in helping avoid a war.
The US is a strong opponent of Australia’s claim to 40 per cent of Antarctica. But Australia reduced the temperature in this dispute by ratifying the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which put the existing claims on hold for almost 90 years. Something similar would be a tremendous help in the South China Sea.
Given the prevailing ill will, the prospects look poor. Nor will they improve if the US elects a belligerent president dismissive of diplomacy. But a military build-up alone mightn’t sway China, even if it cops a “bloody nose”.
Bangkok: The first of Vietnam’s new advanced Kilo-class submarines have begun patrolling disputed waters of the South China Sea, as deterrents to China’s 10 times-bigger navy, Vietnamese officials and diplomatic sources say.
Vietnam is also expanding use of its strategically important Cam Ranh Bay deep-water harbour, where six of the submarines will be based by 2017.
A submarine can be seen in the middle pier at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Photo: Google Maps
The arrival of the submarines from Russia is a key part of Vietnam’s biggest arms build-up since the height of the Vietnam War, which could significantly change the balance of power in the flashpoint South China Sea, analysts say.
As concern has increased about China’s aggressive claims to almost all of the disputed water, Vietnam has been spending billions of dollars developing a submarine fleet, shore-based artillery and missile systems, multirole jet fighters and fast-attack ships, most of which have being bought from Russia and India.
Vietnam was also seeking more Russian jet-fighter bombers and was in talks with European and US arms manufacturers to buy fighter and maritime patrol planes and unarmed surveillance drones, Reuters said, quoting unnamed sources.
Cam Ranh Bay has been described as Vietnam’s “ace up its sleeve” against China’s vastly larger and better-equipped navy, air force and army.
Cam Ranh Bay has been described as Vietnam’s “ace up its sleeve” against China’s vastly larger and better-equipped navy, air force and army. Photo: Google Maps
The country has also recently upgraded and expanded air defences, including obtaining early-warning surveillance radar from Israel and advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries from Russia.
Vietnam’s military spending had outstripped its south-east Asian neighbours over the past decade, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said.
Carlyle Thayer, a professor from Australia’s Defence Force Academy in Canberra, said when all six of Vietnam’s submarines were operational they would provide a potent strike capability with Vietnam’s anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles, adding greatly to the country’s ability to confront an enemy in its waters.
“These weapons systems should enable Vietnam to make it extremely costly for China to conduct maritime operations within a 200 to 300-nautical-mile band of water along Vietnam’s coast, from the Vietnam-China border in the north-east to around Da Nang in central Vietnam, if not further south,” Professor Thayer said in a Thayer Consultancy background briefing paper.
Professor Thayer, an expert on Vietnam’s military and the South China Sea dispute, said Vietnam’s ability to deploy stealthily would be put at risk if China permanently stationed anti-submarine warfare aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, where China has built a 3000-metre airstrip and some basic infrastructure.
China landed a civilian plane on the strip on January 2, sparking a furious response from Vietnam, which labelled it a “serious infringement of the sovereignty of Vietnam”.
Analysts said it was difficult to gauge Vietnam’s actual capabilities and how well they were integrating complex new weapons systems.
But Professor Thayer said when all of Vietnam’s current and future arms acquisitions were taken into account, “it is evident that Vietnam has taken major steps to develop a robust capacity to resist maritime intervention by a hostile power”.
The diesel-electric submarines, also known as Varshavyanka-class, are designed for anti-submarine warfare, anti-shipping and anti-surface ship warfare, patrol and reconnaissance, and for the defence of naval bases and coastlines.
They can operate in the South China’s Sea’s shallow water.
Analysts said Cam Ranh Bay was Vietnam’s “ace up its sleeve” against China’s vastly larger and better-equipped navy, air force and army, against which it fought a bloody war in 1979.
Vietnam has signalled it will invite non-Chinese navies such as Russia, the United States and Japan to send ships and submarines to the harbour for maintenance and logistics support.
The harbour, which was the US’s centre of naval operations during the Vietnam War, provides ships easy access to the disputed water and the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca.
The International Crisis Group has warned that the South China Sea risks becoming a theatre of big-power competition in 2016, as the US challenges China’s large-scale land reclamation and construction on disputed reefs, which has set Beijing on a collision course with several south-east Asian nations.
A tribunal in The Hague is expected to announce its verdict in a landmark case filed by the Philippines accusing China of violating international law in the South China Sea, further raising tensions.
Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and China have overlapping claims to the territory.
More than $US5 trillion ($7 trillion) of trade passes every year through the South China Sea, which is also believed to hold huge deposits of oil and gas.
The Kilo-class submarines are considered one of the quietest and have been upgraded constantly since the 1980s. Analysts say they are more technologically advanced than other Russian-made submarines in China’s fleet.
– with Reuters
A Vietnamese fishing boat Dna 90152 sinking May 2014 after being rammed intentionally by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel. Vietnam and the Philippines have reported numerous acts of violence against them at the hands of Chinese nationals during 2013- 2015. On January 1, 2016, Vietnam accused China again of intentionally ramming (twice) a Vietnamese fishing boat that sank but was salvaged.