Encircling the South China Sea sphere of power rivalry: India joins the fray

Exercise Malabar 2015: The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt transits alongside the Indian fleet tanker INS Shakti during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as the Japanese Maritime Self-defense Force destroyer JS Fuyuzuki approaches. US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

News of India and Japan being in talks on a joint infrastructure project on the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean have sent ripples throughout the region, following a report by The New York Times last Friday (11 March).

Talks on joint infrastructure projects between countries seldom herald much news these days. But the Nicobar and Andaman Islands archipelago, a territorial part of India, is a special case.

It is a strategic outpost of India’s military. The islands host the first and only tri-service command of the Indian armed forces, involving its land, air and sea forces, created in 2001. This is because the Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie northwest to what has been commonly referred to as the “choke point” of sea traffic at the narrow opening to the Straits of Malacca – a choke point as far as China’s marine capabilities are concerned.

As a result, perhaps, the Indian government has, up to now, not allowed any foreign investment in the strategic chain of islands.

Both India and Japan have been careful not to overplay their recent moves. Indeed, the joint infrastructure project in question is a civilian one, involving a 15-megawatt diesel power plant on South Andaman Island. Japan has been careful to underscore that it has only acted in response to a “formal request” from India for the project, which primarily involves the Japan International Cooperation Agency. No possible military element in the project is yet foreseeable.

But it is news from the previous week that would have added to China’s sense of urgency.

US, India, Japan joint navy exercise near South China Sea

On 3 March, the US navy announced that Exercise Malabar, an annual joint US-India naval exercise, would be held in the Philippine Sea, east and northeast of the Philippines, this year. This brings the exercise into the proximity of the contested South China Sea, which China claims most of, against a number of Southeast Asian countries.

The date of the exercise this year has not been revealed yet. Last year, Exercise Malabar was held in the relatively uncontroversial location of the Bay of Bengal.

Moreover, Japan, itself in dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea, will be part of this year’s Exercise Malabar. The Japanese navy became a permanent member of the exercise last year.

These Indian, US and Japanese activities, in the seas to the east and west of the South China Sea, are most certainly being read by Beijing as a challenge to its growing assertiveness.

A dangerous tit-for-tat game

The timing of the announcement of the US navy, hot on the heels of China’s recent activity in the South China Sea, can hardly be described as an accident. A tit for tat military game has been ongoing for some time in the South China Sea. China has been building up military infrastructure, in addition to land reclamation works, on islands and atolls in the disputed South China Sea.

India and the US also appear to be nearing an agreement on military logistics cooperation, after about 12 years of talks. The strengthening of defence ties between the two countries has been read as a reaction to China’s increasing influence in the South China Sea. It is not out of imagination that the Andaman Islands may become increasingly important for naval affairs in Asia in the years to come.