In a February 27th communique to a leading member of the Raj Sabha, India’s upper house of parliament, Indian Defense Minister AK Antony outlined a proposal to establish two new missile test sites for its increasingly-sophisticated arsenal of conventional and nuclear-capable missiles. (http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=92660) The first will be constructed on property near the banks of the River Krishna in the coastal state of Andhra Pradesh. The other is planned for Rutland Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India’s easternmost territory in the Bay of Bengal. The new facilities, when completed, would complement the Defence Research and Development Organization’s current location on Wheeler Island off the coast of Orissa, which has been the mainstay of the organization’s missile tests.
Plans to build two additional facilities to accommodate India’s ambitious missile program appear, at first glance, to be a function of necessity. After all, a single missile range may prove inadequate as further tests are required to incorporate India’s newest ballistic and cruise missiles into its military force posture. However, the timing of the announcement (only nine days after the long-awaited transfer of Pakistan’s deep-sea port at Gwadar to China) and the location of the missile test sites (particularly the Andaman and Nicobar Islands near the Strait of Malacca) suggests the announcement serves a broader, more strategic purpose for India.
Why Gwadar Makes India Nervous
Although Chinese control of the Gwadar port came as no surprise to Indian policy makers and regional security analysts, the official ceremony on February 18 transferring operational rights of the deep-sea port to the China Overseas Port Holding Company clearly marked a new chapter for Chinese involvement in South Asia and the Indian Ocean littoral. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari – who attended the signing ceremony along with the Chinese Ambassador in Islamabad and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hinna Rabbani Khar – noted that the Chinese operation of the port provides a “new impetus” to Sino-Pakistani relations. (http://www.presidentofpakistan.gov.pk/index.php?lang=en&opc=3&sel=2&pId=1462&pressReleaseYear=2013&pressReleaseMonth=02)
The significance of the move was not lost on Defense Minister Antony who, in January, claimed the development at Gwadar was “a matter of concern” for Indian the military. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/chinese-presence-at-gwadar-port-is-a-matter-of-concern-antony/article4386103.ece)
The geopolitical implications of the Gwadar port deal have been clear for some time. Establishing a secure, overland energy route from the Persian Gulf to underdeveloped and energy-starved provinces in western China would alleviate Beijing’s dependence on maritime trade through the vulnerable Strait of Malacca, a narrow sea-lane which could be blocked by an adversary during a crisis. Overcoming this “Malacca Dilemma” would mitigate China’s reliance on the good graces of the U.S. Navy, which has been the guarantor of open sea lines of communication in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean since the fall of Imperial Japan in 1945. As the Chinese economy’s demand for energy expands in the coming decades, ensuring the unabated flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to Chinese consumers will increasingly become a core national interest. (http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1148093/gwadar-seaport-holds-key-chinas-energy-search)
Safeguarding China’s maritime trade routes and Gulf energy supplies will likely compel the PLA-N in the long-term to project power into the Indian Ocean region, long the uncontested domain of the U.S. Navy and, to a lesser degree, the Indian Navy. Operation of the port at Gwadar, in addition to a similar arrangement at the Chinese-built deep-water port at Hambantota on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, may grant the PLA-N future sites for refueling, resupplying, and repairing a future blue-water fleet – all from India’s backyard. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/business/global/16port.html?_r=0)
Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Location, Location, Location
An enhanced capability for the PLA-N in the Indian Ocean aggravates a nightmare scenario for Indian military strategists, in which India must fight a multi-front war against Pakistan and China on land and at sea. Given each country’s sizable nuclear deterrent, such an event is extremely unlikely. Since the stakes are so high, however, India had to respond to the Gwadar deal in a way that reestablished strategic parity with China, while at the same time falling short of overreacting. In the existing geopolitical environment, the planned missile test sites at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands should come as no surprise.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands occupy some of the most valuable strategic real estate in the world. The archipelago sits astride the eastern mouth of the Strait of Malacca, and only 500km separate Port Blair – the territorial capital of the island chain – from the energy-rich Burmese coast. Geography demands that any sea traffic between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean must pass these islands, conferring a tremendous source of leverage and power projection capability to whoever controls them. Their strategic significance was underscored in 2001, when the Ministry of Defense established the Andaman and Nicobar Command at Port Blair, India’s first integrated theater command. (http://ids.nic.in/WebAbhiIDS/brief.html)
Whether it was a strategic signal or a coincidence that India’s announcement to build a missile test site near the Strait of Malacca came so soon after China took control of the Gwadar port facility, it is nevertheless a noteworthy, if subtle, reminder that the strategic relationship between India and China is becoming increasingly complex. It is likely inevitable that the interests of these two countries – with massive populations and increasingly dynamic economies – will become increasingly incongruous with time. While nothing suggests that the trajectory of the bilateral relationship between Beijing and New Delhi is devolving into an adversarial one any time soon, interests in the Indian Ocean littoral between the two countries are already divergent in key areas.
It remains to be seen whether bilateral relations between China and India remain cooperative or turn into something more combative. While much focus has been paid to long-standing border disputes in Askai Chin and Aruchnal Pradesh as potential flashpoints, it could turn out that places like Gwadar, Hambontato, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are even greater sources of tension and distrust in the Sino-Indian relationship. History suggests that naval disputes tend to be more benign than conflicts on land, which bodes well for maritime security in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, if the last few weeks are any indication, the strategic interplay between these two rising powers is likely to continue at sea for some time.