India’s Andaman Islands are where stone-age warfare meets 21st century weapons technology. On November 16, John Allen Chau, an American Christian missionary, was killed in a hail of arrows fired by aboriginal Sentinelese tribesmen as he tried to land on North Sentinel island to spread his faith.
The island, one of the remotest and most isolated islands in the Andaman archipelago, is a no-go territory even for Indian administrators, but was suddenly – if not fleetingly – in the global media spotlight due to the US proselytizer’s demise.
But there is a bigger hidden story in the Andamans, one with a modern geo-strategic twist.
On that same chain of remote islands, situated between Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, India quietly maintains one of its newest and best-equipped military bases.
From there, it monitors among other things the movements of Chinese submarines patrolling the entrance to the Malacca Strait shipping chokepoint while also eavesdropping on their radio traffic, according to sources familiar with the situation.
The Andamans, along with the nearby Nicobar Islands, form an Indian union territory run from New Delhi. It is home to what is appropriately called the Andaman and Nicobar Command, the Indian military’s first and only tri-service command.
Headquartered at Port Blair, the main town on the islands, the command was established in 2001 to safeguard India’s strategic interests in the waters east of the Subcontinent and coordinates the activities of the navy, army and air force as well as the coast guards in the eastern Indian Ocean.
The main bases are on the larger Andamans, while there is a naval air station on the Nicobars not far from the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Now, as China expands its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, the Andamans have become a new maritime frontline in the increasingly pitched geopolitical rivalry between the two Asian giants.
On December 30, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit the Andamans, officially to mark the 75th anniversary of the hoisting of the Indian tricolor flag and the declaration of Azad Hind, or Free India, in Port Blair.
Free India was a provisional government established in 1943 in then occupied Singapore and supported by Empire Japan, Nazi Germany and Italy’s Social Republic – all Axis allies – during World War II.
The Andamans and Nicobars were occupied by the Japanese during the war, the only Indian territory to come under Tokyo’s control. Japan’s ally at that time was Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of the Indian National Army, which fought alongside the Japanese Army in Southeast Asia and on the fringes of South Asia.
Modi will hoist the historical flag at exactly the same place in Port Blair where Bose performed the same ceremony on December 30, 1943.
Today, Japanese and Indian nationalists are allies once again, as Modi has found a strategic soul mate in Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japanese naval vessels may soon be seen in Port Blair as well, as the two countries’ navies build a relationship to counter China’s moves in the Indian Ocean.
Talks are already underway between India and Japan to upgrade the laggard infrastructure on the strategically situated islands, in a project that represents a counter to China’s infrastructure building initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Yet the idea of positioning a new Indian military command on the Andamans predates the BRI. It was first hatched in 1995 during a closed-door meeting in Washington between India’s then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao and then US president Bill Clinton, as it was already clear then that China was keen to establish a presence in the Indian Ocean.
The plan was finalized when Clinton visited India in 2000, and since then US naval ships have docked at Port Blair, ostensibly to assist in training rescue teams. But it is hardly a secret among military observers that the larger reason is to strengthen an informal alliance of powers that are concerned about China’s rising maritime ambitions.
Speaking at a roundtable conference organized by the New Delhi-based think tank the National Maritime Foundation, US Navy chief Admiral Gary Roughead said that American leaders at the highest level had declared Washington and New Delhi would be strategic partners throughout the 21st century: “I’m here to say that the United States Navy in particular is a committed friend to India for the long term.”
In April 2016, India agreed to open its naval bases to the US in exchange for access to weapons technology to help narrow its gap with China. That month officials also said that Chinese submarines had been sighted in the area on an average of four times every three months. Since then, India has received US assistance in tracking China’s submarines.
But with Donald Trump in the White House, America’s commitment to Asia – and by extension India – may not be as firm as previously. That’s caused New Delhi to look increasingly to Tokyo for assistance in reasserting its position in its traditional sphere of influence.
During an October visit to Tokyo, Modi and Abe concluded a range of agreements to strengthen military cooperation, including an “Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement,” or ACSA, which will grant the two sides’ armed forces reciprocal access to each other’s military bases and facilities.
It is obvious to most why China has moved into the Indian Ocean region and no one questions the legitimacy of its interests: most of China’s foreign trade as well as its crucial oil imports pass through the waters. But it is a new geopolitical development that other powers in the region are watching with increased concern.
China’s military base in Djibouti, its first overseas military facility, has sparked speculation that the Chinese navy is aiming for strategic access to other ports in Beijing-friendly nations in the region such as Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.
Today, India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command consists of a joint naval and air force base, two logistics support bases, two naval stations and an air base. Those are rapidly becoming some of India’s most important military outposts, security analysts say.
More transport planes were brought in after the 2004 tsunami disaster, with the Indian Air Force eventually stationing a Sukhoi SU-30 squadron on the Andamans, converting the facility into a fighter aircraft base. Indian military and policy makers now frequently refer to the islands as a “stationary aircraft carrier.”
The Indian Navy also maintains a major Naval Special Forces, known as MARCOS, detachment there, in large part to guard against China’s maneuvers in the Indian Ocean region.
Modi’s upcoming visit there is thus not only a symbolic gesture to honor an old freedom fighter and his budding friendship with Japan, but will also mark more officially the beginning of a new strategic era where Japan and India are once again close partners.
The isolated Sentinelese tribe may be utterly unaware of what is going on so near to their secluded home island. But to the rest of the world, it is obvious that a new Cold War is emerging on the Indian Ocean’s horizon and the Andaman islands are emerging as important outposts in that contest.