A newly expanded military base commissioned by India in the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands will bolster its defenses in the Indian Ocean, according to officials, while analysts said the installation would also help the country monitor rival Chinese naval ships.
The head of the Indian navy traveled to the islands on Thursday to commission the expanded and now independent naval air station, military officials said. It was rechristened the INS Kohassa and is one of three bases operating in the chain of islands, which lie in the northeastern reaches of the Indian Ocean off Southeast Asia and the Malacca Strait.
“The Naval Air station will complement the Navy’s role as a net security provider in the strategic Indian Ocean region,” Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba said, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
“Now, the airbase will function as an independent unit. With the inauguration of INS Kohassa, Andaman and Nicobar Command will further strengthen its defense capabilities in the region,” the government-run All India Radio reported.
The base has a 1,000-meter-long (3,280-foot-long) runway for helicopters and Dornier surveillance aircraft. There are plans to extend the runway to 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) in the future to support aircraft and longer-range reconnaissance aircraft, officials said.
“With the commissioning of the unit, it has become self-contained with proper manpower and infrastructure,” Capt. D.K. Sharma, the navy’s spokesman, told BenarNews on Friday.
“There now will be more facilities, buildings and officers stationed there.”
The proximity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the Malacca Strait makes them “very strategic with regard to monitoring of the area and keeping the choke points under surveillance,” according to a senior naval officer who spoke to Benar on condition of anonymity.
The strait is the main gateway between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
“It is necessary to deploy ships, submarines and aircraft there if we have to carry out surveillance in important sea lines of communication,” the officer said.
Admiral Lanba said at a defense conference in New Delhi recently that the Chinese Navy had added 80 warships in the last five years, and was “a force which is here to stay.”
“No navy has grown so rapidly in the last 200 years as the Chinese Navy,” the admiral said, adding that the Chinese fleet had six to eight warships in the northern Indian Ocean alone.
Ashok Kantha, a Delhi-based observer, said India needed to monitor Chinese naval movements in the ocean that bears its name.
“The PLA Navy is a fact, and it is also a fact that we will see them getting stronger and stronger,” Kantha, a senior analyst at the Vivekananda International Foundation, an Indian think-tank, told BenarNews, referring to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy.
“India has to keep an eye [on this], there are security implications for us,” he noted, adding that the Andamans could play an important role. However, India’s maritime agenda is not just linked to China, he said.
“The Andaman base is a modest facility in the broader picture, but India’s biggest asset is its strategic location in the Indian Ocean. Our geography is our greatest strength,” Kantha, India’s former Ambassador to China, said.
Each year about 120,000 ships pass through the Indian Ocean and nearly 70,000 of them pass through the Malacca Strait, the Reuters news service reported. The Indian Ocean is vital to world trade because more than 75 percent of the international maritime traffic transits through the region, according to media reports.
“The underlying thing is the expanding Chinese presence. If we have to really monitor Chinese presence, we need to be adequately equipped in the Andaman Islands,” former Indian Navy Commodore Anil Jai Singh told Reuters.
Last year, former Indian Navy Chief R.K. Dhowan said that, in formulating its regional strategy, the navy had taken into account the Chinese development of Gwadar, a port in neighboring rival Pakistan, as well as Beijing’s plans to set up bases in Djibouti
“China has maritime interests and they have huge amount of trade and oil passing through this region, and it is to protect their interests that they remain deployed here. The Indian Navy monitors all activities of the Chinese navy as well as all other maritime movements,” Dhowan said at the time.
In 2018, China, Thailand and Malaysia took part in a 10-day naval training exercise in the Malacca Strait, the first time the three nations held drills together.
The Chinese Navy has had a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean in the form of an anti-piracy escort force since 2008.
“Even if India looks at countering China, it can’t compete with their acquisitions. Its strength is its location in the Indian Ocean,” Kantha, the former envoy to China, said.