India's recent announcement that it will deploy two of its new Boeing P-8 maritime surveillance and strike aircraft to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands could create new opportunities for enhanced cooperation with Australia and the US.
The islands, which run some 800km from the top of Indonesian Sumatra to Myanmar, are India's strategic outpost in Southeast Asia, potentially allowing India to dominate the western approaches to the Malacca Strait just as China's artificial islands in the South China Sea dominate the sea lanes at the other end of the Strait.
India has been building its military capabilities on the islands for decades, but its capabilities in intelligence, surveillance & and reconnaissance (ISR) have been limited. But the Indian Navy's air station on Great Nicobar island in the south of the archipelago is now being developed to accommodate large aircraft such as the P-8. Great Nicobar is near the western end of the Malacca Strait and the Six Degree Channel through which most commercial shipping passes.
India's response to China
The most immediate driver of these deployments is China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean. The PLA Navy has made continuous deployments to anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea since 2008. But deployments of Chinese conventional submarines to the Indian Ocean in the last couple of years have caused considerable disquiet in Delhi. Port calls by a Chinese submarine in Sri Lanka in 2014 were especially controversial, and were essentially seen as a hostile act against India by Sri Lanka's former Rajapaksa regime. Last December, Beijing announced the establishment of its first foreign military base in Djibouti to support Chinese forces operating in the western Indian Ocean.
This means the Chinese navy has now become a permanent feature of the Indian Ocean, and one day this could include deployments of Chinese ballistic-missile submarines.
The growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean has led the Indian Navy to rebalance its fleet more towards its east coast and the Bay of Bengal. The development of new capabilities in the Andaman & Nicobar islands will help India to potentially dominate the entire Bay of Bengal and the western approaches to the Malacca Strait. The P-8 deployment will also enhance India's surveillance and strike capabilities further afield, potentially including in the South China Sea.
Watching the gateway
But the deployment of P-8 aircraft to the Nicobars could also have broader strategic consequences for India's defence relations with Australia, the US and Southeast Asian partners.
For one thing, India's maritime surveillance efforts could complement Australia's activities in the area. For more than 35 years, as part of Operation Gateway, Australia has conducted maritime surveillance in the Malacca Strait itself and at each end of the Strait in the South China Sea and Bay of Bengal. Operation Gateway was instituted by the Fraser Government in 1981 in response to the growing Soviet presence in the Indian Ocean and throughout the 1980s, Australian P-3 aircraft, operating from or staging through Butterworth in Malaysia, actively 'prosecuted' Soviet submarines transiting the Malacca Strait between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These ISR operations continued after the Cold War and from 2017 will include Australia's new fleet of P-8 aircraft.
Potential for cooperation in regional maritime domain awareness
The operation of P-8s by India, Australia and the US could form a good basis for cooperation in shared maritime domain awareness in the region. The deployment of Indian P-8s to the Nicobar Islands and the development of associated runways and support facilities could also create new opportunities for operational cooperation.
Since the 1990s, when the US encouraged India to develop its military presence in the Andamans, US analysts have pointed to the potential value of these facilities for US forces. A Logistics Support Agreement which would facilitate the use by US and Indian forces of each other's facilities and the pre-positioning of equipment has been on the table for almost a decade. Following the visit of Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to Washington in December, it looks like a deal might be finalised soon. If so, a similar agreement with Australia will also likely be on the cards. Access to facilities in the Andaman & Nicobars by US and Australian aircraft would represent a big step forward in operational cooperation.
Improving India's ISR capabilities in the islands also creates opportunities to work more closely with Southeast Asian partners, which could potentially include the development of a regional maritime domain awareness system encompassing Southeast Asia. This could help address a host of maritime security concerns as diverse as illegal fishing, drug and people smuggling, and terrorism.
Despite a lot of rhetoric about greater defence and security cooperation between India, the US and Australia, practical cooperation remains thin. The three countries need to create opportunities for regular and sustained cooperation at an operational level. ISR cooperation in and around Southeast Asia, potentially including use of facilities in the Andaman & Nicobar islands, would fit the bill.
Photo by Flickr user Andrew Sieber.