Originally Published 2014-04-01 11:09:35 Published on Apr 01, 2014
MH370 spotlight: Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The search for Malaysia’s ill fated flight MH370 has put considerable spotlight on India’s strategically important Andaman and the Nicobar Islands -- the latest being refusing Chinese naval ships entry to Indian waters to look for plane debris in the area. As the search for the missing plane intensified with the area expanding into the Indian Ocean, the strategic importance of the Andaman and the Nicobar Islands is clearly emerging.

On March 8, 2014, MH370 enroute to Beijing from Malaysia disappeared over the South China Sea after losing contact with Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) within an hour of take off. It was then indicated that the plane turned back from its scheduled route and flew for several hours after losing contact with the ATC. India joined international efforts to locate the missing plane as the search area widened over the Malacca Strait and the southern Indian Ocean. On March 14, 2014, forces from the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guards and the Indian Air Force were deployed to search the area in the South Andaman Sea, with the Indian Navy leading the search efforts.

The union territory of the Andaman and Nicobar lies at the junction of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea and is at a distance of 1200 km from India’s mainland -- while being located at a short distance of 140 km from the busy shipping lanes of the Malacca Strait. Strategically, these islands are important to India’s security and the Look East Policy, given its location and the proximity to Southeast Asia.

The Indian Navy regularly engages with the navies of the region by carrying out exercises and drills off the islands. MILAN 2014, a multinational naval exercise which saw the highest number of participants since its inception in 1995, was also held in the Andaman Sea, off the Andaman Nicobar Islands. The islands also host the country’s first unified command of the three forces (Navy, Army and the Air Force), called the Andaman and the Nicobar Command (ANC), which was set up in 2001.

India has played an active role in the search for MH370 with the search operations being carried out from the ANC. As the search intensified, India deployed additional naval and air assets to locate the missing plane. The Indian Navy by March 15, 2014 had deployed "two recently acquired P8I Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft of the Indian Navy and one C 130 J aircraft of the Indian Air Force in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. The Short Range Maritime Reconnaissance Dornier aircraft of the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have also been extensively deployed for the ongoing search operations". Additionally, six ships, three each from the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have been deployed with the larger international group in the Andaman Sea as well as in the Malacca Strait. While the Indian search efforts were suspended on March 16, 2014 as per Malaysian requests and a new search strategy, they were resumed on March 20 with further deployment. As of March 25, 2014 the airline has been declared ’lost’ in the southern Indian Ocean. The airline sent out a message to the families of those aboard with the heartbreaking news that ’"Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived... we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean."

As most of the passengers on the missing flight are Chinese nationals, Beijing has been anxious to locate MH370. In this light, Beijing sent a request to New Delhi to allow its four warships enter the Andaman Sea and conduct search operations there- which was declined. The Times of India quoted an unnamed official reflecting Indian concerns that "The A&N command is our military outpost in the region, which overlooks the Malacca Strait and dominates the Six-Degree Channel. We don’t want Chinese warships sniffing around in the area on the pretext of hunting for the missing jetliner or anti-piracy patrols". Moreover, Indian forces have already deployed assets to locate the missing plane and are coordinating with the international group.

India has been wary about Beijing’s outreach into the Indian Ocean and concerns have particularly increased after the Chinese navy’s combat exercises in January 2014, near Indonesia. The exercises comprising the amphibious warship Changbaishan and two destroyers reflect China’s ability to project power far from its shores into the Indian Ocean.

India’s engagement with the search efforts to locate the missing plane is commendable. Due to the strategic location of the Andaman Nicobar Islands, Indian forces have been able to play an active role in humanitarian assistance even in the past. During the 2004 tsunami set off by a massive earthquake off the coast of Indonesia in the Indian Ocean, 11 Indian Ocean countries were affected leading to massive destruction and immeasurable loss of life. India was at the forefront of the relief and assistance operations in the region while at the same time helping its own people in the affected areas. India’s assistance to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia was particularly noteworthy, with India being the first country to respond to the disaster in Sri Lanka. According to a report by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, "ecognising the key role that India can play in the region, it was invited to be a part of the Tsunami Core Group put together by the United States in order to facilitate a coordinated effort to deal with this disaster". India also played a constructive role when cyclone "Nargis" hit Myanmar in 2008, causing the worst natural disaster in the history of Myanmar. The Indian Armed Forces launched "Operation Sahayata" from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands wherein the Air Force and the Navy took the lead in delivering supplies and assisting Mynamar in the hour of crisis.

India’s ability to respond to natural calamities has been applauded and places the Indian Navy and Air Force at a credible position amongst the countries of the region. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have aided India in its naval diplomacy and goodwill adding to its strategic importance for the country.

The search efforts to locate the missing flight put the otherwise scenic holiday destination of the Andaman and the Nicobar Islands in a vital position. While the islands place India at an advantageous position in the Indian Ocean, there is a need for a certain amount of development in the Union Territory to help realise its potential. With the Chinese navy’s increasing ability to project power into the Indian Ocean, it is important for New Delhi to strengthen its strategic outpost in the Andaman and Nicobar territory and remain a security provider to the region.

(The writer is an Associate Editor of ORF South China Sea Monitor)

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