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Is India planning to spy on Chinese submarines from the Andamans?

An aerial view of some of the 524 islands that make up the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. Photo: AFP

India’s move, with a little help from Japan, to develop a strategically located island chain near the mouth of Southeast Asia’s main shipping lane is part of a broader plan by New Delhi to keep a closer watch on China’s naval assets, say analysts and former Indian officials – especially its submarines.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago of 524 islands, only 38 of which are inhabited, stretches across some 1,000km (620 miles) of Indian Ocean by the western entrance to the Malacca Strait, through which an estimated 80 per cent or more of China’s seaborne trade passes.

“It is like a [permanent] aircraft carrier,” Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary of India, told This Week In Asia, “that gives India very extensive control over maritime space and sea lanes of communication to monitor shipping and naval vessels.”

Long considered an underutilised security asset, the islands have come into sharper focus amid rising India-China tensions following last year’s deadly flare-up at the two countries’ disputed border, and the fact that “China is [becoming] increasingly active in the Indian Ocean as part of its Maritime Silk Road strategy,” Sibal said, in reference to the sea route section of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative plan to grow global trade.

As part of that plan, China has acquired numerous footholds around the Indian Ocean in recent years, Sibal noted, with Chinese companies taking control of commercial ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and the country acquiring its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2016. Rumours that Beijing will establish a second offshore naval base at Gwadar, the Pakistani port operated by China’s Cosco Shipping Holdings Co, have circulated for years, and Sibal said Chinese submarines now enter the Indian Ocean on a regular basis.

Against this backdrop, India has in recent months expedited plans to base additional military forces on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, including facilities for additional warships, aircraft, missile batteries and soldiers, according to Abhijit Singh, a senior fellow and head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank.

The retired naval officer said runways at Indian naval air stations in the far north and south of the island chain had been extended to accommodate larger aircraft, while a 10-year infrastructure development plan for the islands has also been fast-tracked.

Last month, Japan extended development assistance to the islands for the first time in the form of a US$36 million government grant to upgrade the power grid on South Andaman Island, where capital city Port Blair and most of the archipelago’s population are located. The grant, which Deepa Wadhwa, a retired Indian ambassador to Japan, says “reflect the two countries convergence on security issues and commitment for a free and open Indo-Pacific”, will be used to buy batteries to aid solar power generation on the island – and hints at a greater opening of the area to friendly nations, according to security experts.

Sujan R. Chinoy, a retired diplomat and the current director general of the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis in Delhi, has argued in favour of such a move, saying India should collaborate with the US, Japan and Australia – fellow members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad” – to implement an effective system of underwater surveillance around the islands, where India’s only tripartite military command, comprising the army, navy and the air force, is located.

 “Surveillance of Chinese naval [assets], especially submarines, in the Indo-Pacific should be on the Quad’s – and therefore the Indo-Japan – agenda,” said Sibal, the former top diplomat, who added that “a division of responsibility in the Indo-Pacific should be an objective” for the Quad – with India, Australia and Japan each taking an area of responsibility, while the US fills in the gaps with its massive maritime capabilities.

India does not allow foreign navies to use its facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at present, partly out of concern that it could spook other nations in the region, according to Abhijit Singh of the Observer Research Foundation. “There is also apprehension that operating sensitive equipment with foreign partners might involve the sharing of critical undersea data and a level of informational access to foreign collaborators that the Indian Navy may not be comfortable with,” he said.

Strategic analysis website Resonant News reported in July that the US and Japan had helped deploy an underwater surveillance network in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to monitor Chinese submarines – though there was no official confirmation of the supposed development.

Since 2015, Japan has taken part in regular naval exercises with India and the US – which Australia also joined last year – and in September, Delhi and Tokyo signed an agreement that allows their respective militaries to access each other’s bases for logistics support. The pact came after years of negotiations and could reportedly include facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Japan’s NEC Corporation, through its Indian subsidiary, also helped lay a 2,300km undersea optical cable connecting the archipelago with mainland India, a project that was completed last year after being launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018.

Other infrastructure projects earmarked for the archipelago include plans to transform the sparsely populated Little Andaman Island into a financial-tourist hub to rival Singapore or Hong Kong – despite environmentalists’ fears it could destroy the island’s fragile ecology.