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