India’s Look East Policy: Securing the Andaman Sea
by Ramtanu Maitra on 05 Aug 2008 0 Comment

One of the most important foreign policy decisions made in the last fifteen years by New Delhi was the “Look East” policy because it opened the door to closer interaction with a number of India’s Asian neighbours. In 1992, when former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao formulated the Look East policy, the government had also embarked on a programme of restructuring the economy at home and seeking new markets and economic partners abroad. Since then, New Delhi has pursued this policy in fits and starts, but not with the intensity or the vision it requires. Still, the result has been measurable, albeit inadequate, material gains for New Delhi in the areas of trade and economic relations.


As India is now growing financially and materially, some short-sighted “strategists” are trying to convince the powers-that-be in New Delhi that the basic Look East policy - if only it is put on steroids, pushing for stronger economic ties and larger trade by tweaking the country’s tariff rates and labor policies - constitutes an adequate foreign policy toward the rest of Asia that will bring expanded material benefits to India. Protagonists of this approach have only one ear, which they keep tuned toward Wall Street and the international financial institutions. Echoing these outsiders, they assume that the maximum benefit that can be derived from the Look East policy by India, and East and Southeast Asia, is to turn the area into one big bazaar, where millions can buy and sell to their hearts’ content. The concept of national security and its importance in the regional alliance does not enter into this view.


The naiveté of these “strategists” is thrown into bold relief when we observe the way another large and great Asian neighbour, now financially stronger than ever, is conducting its foreign policy. China has combined its economic and trade policy with a policy aimed at ensuring its own security. In its immediate proximity, Beijing is working to create a wider perimeter of security to ensure that its vast and crucial economic and trade policies are not disrupted by rogue actions of dissident nations or powerful groups. While Beijing is straining its sinews to make its economy and financial sector stronger, it is also carving out for itself territories where it will be “safe” to operate this vast trade and economic machine. Almost all major countries depend heavily on both import and export of goods and services on a regular basis, and China, like India, is no exception.


There are many who consider India an Indian Ocean power, rather than a power of the Asia-Pacific, and would like it to remain as such. But whether Washington, Beijing, Canberra, London - New Delhi, for that matter - chooses to acknowledge it or not, India is now a key player in the Asia-Pacific in terms of both economy and security needs and capabilities. And a section of India’s strategic thinkers, including this author, now recognize that India must rise to assume the strategic responsibilities implied by its size and location in a larger arena.  It is time to focus on and build up the security dimension of the Look East policy. Two most important aspects of the security dimension are to take total control of the Andaman Sea, and develop a strong and mutually-beneficial relationship with Myanmar.


Look East Policy in Historical Perspective


The trade-only strategists’ analysis is more understandable when one looks back over the history of India’s relations with Southeast Asia. Despite its historical, traditional and cultural impact on Southeast Asia over the centuries, India was a marginal trading nation in Southeast Asia during the twentieth century.  Then, during the Cold War, East and Southeast Asia grew significantly through the development of small and medium-sized manufacturing facilities and trade with each other, as well as with the West.  India was not on their radar screen.


In 1967, five Southeast Asian nations formed a group based on a development-oriented treaty, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).  They found it uncomfortable to deal with an India that was not part of the American security bloc. Why?  It is not just that during the Cold War India was widely considered to be militarily dependent on the anti-US Soviet Union, a financially weak nation, but rather that the security measures ensured by the US Pacific Command and Washington at the time were crucial for carrying out economic growth based on heavy investments.


Among the Southeast Asian nations, India had closer ties with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as a result of its 1954-73 chairmanship of the International Commission of Control and Supervision established by the 1954 Geneva Accords on Indochina. These relationships were further enhanced because of India's friendship with the Soviet Union, particularly after 1971, and, in the case of Vietnam, shared perceptions of a threat from China. With regard to Cambodia, India recognized the Vietnamese-installed regime in 1980 and worked to avert censure of the regime in the annual UN General Assembly and triennial Nonaligned Movement summit meetings.


But these ties did not bring any of the nations involved any real material benefits.  Moreover, they were looked upon by the then-ASEAN member- nations as confirmation of India’s anti-West policy in the region. For its part, New Delhi, which identified itself as a non-aligned nation, considered the presence of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in Southeast Asia as a virtual deal breaker.  Set up in 1954 and dissolved in 1977, SEATO was a collective defense organization to defend Southeast Asia against the Soviet Union and China. Its members included inter alia, two ASEAN member-nations: Thailand and the Philippines.


With the end of the Cold War and the emergence in the early 1980s of a China that trained its attention on becoming wealthy and strong by reaching out to its neighbours, the security situation in Southeast Asia in particular, and in East Asia as well, changed significantly. Now China is making sure that the militarily weak Southeast Asian nations feel secure. Now China is involved in many large-scale infrastructural developments that will provide the proverbial push to the next level of economic development in the region, helping China in the process as well.


With the end of the Cold War, New Delhi found to its chagrin that relations with Pakistan on its western border did not change.  In fact, the Kashmir instability reached its zenith about the time the Soviet Union was disintegrating. India’s earlier efforts to create the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which was set up in 1985 but did not develop much teeth because of India’s inability to give the necessary leadership, did not go any place. It became evident to even the status quo-loving and slow-moving New Delhi bureaucrats that the SAARC project was a non-starter; to expect SAARC to deliver significantly in terms of the economic growth that India needed was unrealistic.


With hindsight, it is clear that the timing of the Look East policy was appropriate. The end of the Cold War had positioned India to shift some attention away from its western borders and “look east” for new dimensions for its economic and trade policies. New Delhi’s objective was to establish closer relations with the Southeast Asian countries now that the Cold War was over, and the Soviet Union was no more.  ASEAN, in return, was receptive. Promoting cooperation with ASEAN was the basis of India’s Look East policy, and the process helped India to begin to develop economic ties with the Asia-Pacific region as well.


This single-dimension policy is, however, inherently limited and ultimately completely inadequate. It is appropriate for a small nation, like most ASEAN nations, who are simply looking for economic well-being while seeking physical security through mutually beneficial relationships with neighbours. But India is not a small nation, and the countries of Southeast Asia do not appreciate its behaving as if it were. In Southeast Asia, India is considered a powerful nation that has refused to act its size. 


Despite the launching of the Look East policy in 1992, India’s role in building up the Asian security architecture did not take a definable shape in the decade that followed. Yet it is essential for the people of India that it takes shape in the near future.  


Strategic Relations


India’s April 2004 declaration that it seeks strategic relations with Southeast Asia was a positive note in this regard. In its maritime doctrine released at that time, the Indian Navy shifted from defending the coastline from rival Pakistan to declaring the entire Indian Ocean Region (IOR), from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits, to be its “legitimate area of interest.” The creation of transport and communication infrastructure would, the statement said, promote more frequent exchanges at the government and people-to-people level, and actively encourage business ties.


New Delhi now considers maintaining the safety of international sea lanes in its proximity an important objective. Responding to the growing strategic importance of the western Arabian Sea, India has invested heavily in the INS Kadamba naval base; spread over 4,480 hectares in Karwar, Karnataka, to protect the country's Arabian Sea maritime routes. Kadamba, which is built in two phases and estimated to be completed in 2010, is India’s third operational naval base, after Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. Six frontline Indian naval ships, including frigates and destroyers, took part in the commissioning of the first phase in 2005.


It has become increasingly evident that India wants to enter the Asia-Pacific and play its role, although that role has not been fully articulated. At the same time, India’s increasing influence in the Asia-Pacific has been demonstrated categorically through a series of bilateral developments such as Washington’s eagerness to strengthen the India-US strategic partnership, India-Japan cooperation and the India-Singapore exchanges.


India has also maintained its moderate presence militarily in the West Pacific, joining relevant exercises in anti-terror and anti-piracy operations, mostly focusing on non-hot spot areas; in such crucial areas as the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Straits and South China, India has not made its presence felt.


Now that India has become a member of the East Asia Summit, a 16-member grouping that had its first summit in 2005 to develop an East Asian trading bloc, the pace of its integration into the region is accelerating, an analyst from Beijing observed. In order to optimize its Look East policy, India must continue its push in the Asia-Pacific, joining hands with all nations in the region to ensure security to all. 


Meanwhile, to build up the security dimension of the Look East policy, India has moved rightly and forcefully in one direction - to secure the Andaman Sea, a vital cog for her security and a very important ingredient in the Look East policy’s ability to deliver long-term benefits. After years of hesitation, India has now firmly acknowledged its strategic importance. The Indian Navy is setting up a Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) off Port Blair on the Andaman Islands - also known as the Bay Islands - located midway between the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Strait. This will give the Indian Navy “blue water” status.  New Delhi understands that the new strategic command will remain vulnerable unless the entire Andaman Sea is brought under the full control of the Indian Navy.


A variety of factors led to New Delhi's full realization of the Andaman Sea’s importance for overall regional security.  To begin with, the 2005 US invitation to the Indian Navy to help patrol Malacca Strait. Thanks to the weakness of the Indonesian and Malaysian navies, the Malacca Strait has become a hunting ground of pirates. Calling on the Indian Navy to help amounts to Washington’s tacit approval of India’s assertion of naval control over the Andaman Sea, the eastern mouth of the Indian Ocean, and the waters that surround Sri Lanka, according to some analysts.


Although India is not party to any security arrangement for the Malacca Strait, the immediate purpose of any joint patrols would be to prevent smuggling, piracy, drug and gun trafficking, poaching and illegal immigration in the region. Oil-tanker traffic through the narrow strait, which already carries most of North Asia’s oil imports, is projected to grow from 10 million barrels a day in 2002 to 20 million barrels a day in 2020 - much of that oil destined for the fast-growing market of China.


Even if Washington’s wink and nudge emboldened Indian authorities to finally stake control over the Andaman Sea, other reasons often debated in New Delhi’s South Bloc were no less critical. As one Indian analyst points out, in addition to the U.S., whose navy has long had a presence in the Indian Ocean and has been stealthily sailing the waters of the Bay of Bengal, in recent years China has also shown considerable interest in utilizing the Andaman Sea as an outlet to the Indian Ocean.


Controlling Andaman Sea


There is no question that Andaman Sea, an access to the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea for a number of South and Southeast Asian nations, must be brought fully under Indian control to be made absolutely safe. At the same time, India must act as a facilitator for the nations on the shores of both Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal - or for nations like Bhutan and Nepal that do not have any direct access to the Bay of Bengal but depend on sea-based trade - in protecting their maritime trade. That will also ensure India’s collaboration with all navies located on the shores of Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. This is a vital element in making the Look East policy optimally productive for years to come and firmly securing the eastern perimeter of India.


Establishment of the Far Eastern Naval Command is central to taking firm control of the Andaman Sea. Indian naval officers have said that when fully developed by 2012, FENC will have a chain of small anchor stations and three main bases. As for models, Russia has a similar base in the Black Sea, and the US naval base at Hawaii comes close. Spreading from Narcondam to Indira Point, FENC will be larger than the former US base in the Philippines at Subic Bay. Car Nicobar will serve as the vital link for various FENC stations.


The plan to create FENC was set in concrete in 1995 following a closed-door meeting in Washington between Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and President William J. Clinton.  It was about three years after Prime Minister Rao had articulated his Look East policy. The US is expected to partly fund FENC as it is considered part of a US-led security arrangement for Asia in which India plays a key role. US funding was cleared in 2000 when President Clinton visited India.


FENC will have state-of-the-art naval electronic warfare systems that can extend as far as Southeast Asia. The Russian Navy will likely assist in setting up a few armament projects.  The command will include submarines. The upgraded naval ship repair yard at Port Blair already refits minor war vessels, but FENC will build and repair bigger ships, releasing more warships for operations and more operational space in alternative ports for fleet ships and submarines.


Some analysts in New Delhi view the strengthening of India’s strike and control abilities in the Andaman Sea as a counter to China’s growing presence in Myanmar. While no one in New Delhi denies that China is becoming a significant military power, many do not see any reason to develop an adversarial relationship with China. Some fear that the encroaching Indian naval presence in Andaman Sea could threaten Beijing and create roadblocks in steadily developing Sino-Indian cooperation. They worry that the measures undertaken by New Delhi to enhance the security of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands will threaten or antagonize Beijing, even if India’s intent is clearly stated and underlined.


This argument is arbitrary and short-sighted. Sino-India relations will not improve even a bit if New Delhi chooses to remain vulnerable and avoid doing what is required to ensure its rightful place in the broader region. To begin with, China wants its own geographical boundary to be secure. While it has a large army, its naval capability is still weak. China has embarked upon a developmental model that will force it to depend on maritime transport to keep economic growth going. There is nothing China would welcome more than finding that other nations in the neighbourhood are pitching in to ensure the safety of trade.


India’s objective in securing full and absolute control of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal should be based on the premise that the Indian Navy will ensure the safety and security of the maritime trade of all nations using the waterway.


Combating Maritime Security Threats


Beside the often-talked-about fear of the use of international waterways by aggressive countries to launch a full-fledged naval invasion, there are many other maritime threats that can hurt countries, even the large ones, in a significant way. The impact in the region and beyond of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam-led (LTTE-led) terrorism, whose activity and reach has depended on use of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal during the 1980s and to-date, is a case in point.


There are also questionable activities carried out by other nations, such as the increased activity of Pakistan along the Myanmar coast that has troubled Indian authorities. According to Jane’s Information Group, Pakistan has supplied Myanmar with several shiploads of ordnance and other military hardware, such as 106mm M40 recoilless rifles and various small arms over the past decade, and regularly trains Myanmar’s soldiers to operate Chinese tanks, fighter aircraft and howitzers. Myanmar’s officers attend Pakistan’s Military Staff College at Quetta in Baluchistan. Since 2001, a full-time Pakistani defense attaché has been posted in Yangon.


In 2001, three Pakistan Navy ships, including a submarine and a destroyer, called at Yangon; this was followed by President General Pervez Musharraf's visit to Myanmar. The joint communiqué issued at the end of that visit mentioned Jammu & Kashmir, raising concern in New Delhi as Myanmar rarely, if at all, comments on third countries. Security sources claimed Pakistan was negotiating to build an airstrip in the Chin region of Myanmar, contiguous to Mizoram.


These activities by an “outside” nation not located on the waters of the Andaman Sea or Bay of Bengal could not have been carried out if India had declared at some point in time a version of the “Monroe Doctrine” vis-à-vis the waterway lodged between India’s east coast and Southeast Asia’s west coast.


India has been directly subjected to security threats from local lawless elements interconnected with broader networks abroad.  In February 2005, New Delhi charged 34 Arakan separatists from Myanmar with hiding in the Landfall Islands, part of the Andaman Islands group. These alleged members of the Arakan Army, the military wing of the National Unity Party in Myanmar, have been charged with illegal entry.  This incident was the tip of the iceberg in terms of growing concern in New Delhi over the security of the Andaman Islands itself. Reports were circulating in the intelligence community that the Andamans are not only thick with Myanmar rebels, but have become an arms depot of the LTTE. Information pointing in this direction came to light after the December 2004 tsunami, which took a heavy toll on the Andamans.


Security problems in the Andaman Sea are not new, but they have deteriorated during the past few years in tandem with deterioration in the security situation in Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, and particularly in the northeastern Indian states of Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura. While the Indian army has become rock-solid on the western front, and has developed the capability to withstand any Pakistani adventure in that sector, it has become highly vulnerable in the eastern sector, where its enemy is not a national army but a multitude of secessionist, terrorist and drug-running militants operating between Southeast Asia and northeastern India through Bangladesh, in particular.


Andaman Sea is a major conduit for this traffic, and the 572 large and small islands that constitute the Andaman and Nicobar group are a natural transit base. The drugs and arms travel in all directions. The “Sea Tigers” of the LTTE, better known as Tamil Tigers, once the undisputed rulers of the Andaman Sea, still carry arms and drugs for their own use and also to deliver to rebels in Aceh in Indonesia, and all along the east coast of Africa. It is old news that the Tamil Tigers have developed a strong network within South Africa.


Andaman Hub


This is not unknown to New Delhi. A 2005 report by a journalist from Port Blair quoted an unnamed official saying that foreigners from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have permanently settled in the islands, using fake Indian ration cards, while citizens of Thailand, China, Indonesia and Malaysia have migrated temporarily to plunder the natural resources and leave. “Port Blair, Havelock Islands, Diglipur, Middle Nicobar, Campbell's Bay, Neil Islands and Rangott are mostly overrun by foreigners,” he reported.


An official estimate in 2003 suggested there were 50,000 “foreigners” in the Andaman Islands; unofficial figures are much higher. A large number are Bangladeshis. As most have few technical skills, and the Andamans have little demand for them in any case, they turn to smuggling and other unlawful activities. The presence of the Sea Tigers in the area with guns, cash and drugs makes the situation extremely dangerous.


In 2001, according to Indian army officials, security forces launched a wide-ranging operation in the 300-odd inhabited islands neighbouring Andaman and Nicobar and found huge caches of arms. The search-and-destroy operation was carried out by the Indian government after repeated requests from Colombo. The arms were said to belong to the LTTE and “other terrorist groups.”


North of the Andaman Islands, Bangladeshi coastal areas have become a nest of terrorists involved in shipment of drugs and arms. A pattern of arrests and seizures indicate that arms were brought in by the LTTE from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand into Chittagong, from where they are transported northward by land to southern Bhutan, among other destinations. The route from Kalikhola in Bhutan to Cox’s Bazar passes through northern Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya, and on into Chittagong.


LTTE activity in the Andaman Sea is known to local observers and has been documented for years. The biggest LTTE maritime disaster was reported in the now-defunct Asiaweek magazine in 2001. A shipment of weapons, ammunition and explosives, believed to have been purchased from Cambodia and worth several million dollars, left the port of Phuket in Thailand in early February that year aboard freighter Comex-Joux 3. The vessel changed its name at sea to Horizon, but on its journey across the Bay of Bengal the freighter was tracked by the Indian Navy and Orissa-based spy planes of India's Aviation Research Center; it was intercepted by Indian naval vessels off Sri Lanka’s east coast.


In 1997, the Thai navy reported the interception of a 16-meter boat after a chase off the Thai port of Ranong and the confiscation of two tons of weapons and ammunition. Among the weapons intercepted were two rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 20 assault rifles, M-79 grenade launchers and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Four persons were arrested, reportedly belonging to the Manipur Revolutionary People’s Front. Six crew members were from Arakan region of Myanmar.  The boat was heading toward Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.


Until 1995, the LTTE maintained a base at Twante, an island off the coat of Myanmar, west of the Andaman Islands. Subsequently, Phuket became the LTTE's main backup base. A Sri Lanka-born Tamil with a Norwegian passport was arrested by Thai authorities in 2000 for his links with the LTTE. At the time of his arrest, the suspect was allegedly involved in constructing a “submarine” in a shipyard on the island of Sirae near Phuket on the Andaman Sea coast.


To be continued


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