‘Choking China’ : Japan’s $3.42 billion (4.02 billion) grant to India’s strategically positioned Andaman and Nicobar Islands to stabilize energy supplies in March 2021 emphasizes the islands’ critical geopolitical location for both India and QUAD partners.
The islands are strategically located near the Malacca Strait, a critical waterway and choke point for China’s petroleum supplies.
The islands also dominate the Bay of Bengal, as well as the Six Degree and Ten Degree waterways, which see over 60,000 commercial ships pass through each year. Two of the nine key obstacles that regulate access to this region are the Malacca Strait and the Six Degree Channel. To avoid accidents, even submarines normally surface during this trip.
The Japanese grant will assist India in utilising renewable energy power while also improving power supply to India’s military and surveillance activities. By February 2024, the project should be completed.
According to The Japan Times, security analysts believe Japan’s contribution to India is part of a coordinated plot to keep an increasingly assertive China in check.
Furthermore, Japan is not only India’s close ally but also a leading proponent of the “Free and Open Indo Pacific,” a counterbalance to China’s expansion and assertiveness.
India, Japan, the United States, and Australia make up the Quadrilateral organisation, which aims to challenge China through non-military means. Infrastructure development, although in a bilateral framework between India and Japan, could be a step in that direction.
This is the first time India has accepted foreign aid to help the Andaman and Nicobar Islands flourish. Defense specialists are also intrigued by Japan’s decision to sponsor this initiative.
To deter China, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands station naval, aviation, and ground forces. The islets link the Bay of Bengal to the Andaman Sea and make up 30% of India’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).
A Subtle Deterrent to China?
This group of 244 islands, according to naval researcher Toshi Yoshihara, allows India to play into China’s psyche by constructing an Indian counterpart of the Western Pacific’s first-island chain.
China has increased its presence in the region in recent years. The presence of naval ships camouflaged as fishing boats has been discovered.
“If an armed war breaks out in the South China Sea, and the US and, by extension, Japan get involved, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands might play a critical role,” said G.V.C. Naidu, an Indo-Pacific relations professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“The Bay of Bengal rim region is also one of the fastest-growing subregions in the Indo-Pacific,” Naidu wrote in an email, forcing India to pay “a lot more attention” to the marine realm and the islands.
This is the first time India has pursued development on such a large scale in a region that has been ignored for decades.
“Things have changed, and China is now a looming factor,” a security expert told IndianDefenseNews on condition of anonymity. “I’ve been told that now Indian authorities have started to allow Japanese embassy staff in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which were previously prohibited due to some historical sensitivities.”
Analysts believe that once the infrastructure is in place, India and other naval forces will be able to use it to undertake Malabar training with the four Quad states in the Indian Ocean.
“Not merely Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) would benefit from the improvement of the islands’ infrastructure,” said Leszek Burzynski, an honorary professor of strategic and defence studies at the Australian National University.
China has criticised the Malabar manoeuvres, according to Burzynski, and Beijing is “sensitive to the expansion of the MSDF’s area of operations,” particularly in the South China Sea.
The Indian Navy hosts a multinational naval exercise at Port Blair, the headquarters of the Andaman and Nicobar Command, making the region militarily significant. It’s all the more relevant given China’s repeated references to Quad as an elite group akin to an Asian NATO.