India hoists a ‘metal chain’ in the Indian Ocean

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Over at the South China Morning Post, analyst Yogesh Joshi reminds us that great-power strategic competition isn’t just a U.S.-China or U.S.-Russia thing. There are other geopolitical heavyweights out there. Many take an interest in the Indian Ocean. For example, both Britain and France have vowed to mount a frequent, if not standing, naval presence in the Indo-Pacific to help offset Chinese and Russian ambitions. And let’s not forget India, a budding titan that regards itself as the Indian Ocean region’s benevolent overseer.

New Delhi is a permanent factor in regional affairs. It’s the region’s central power by virtue of the subcontinent’s central geographic position, size, large population and economic resources. It is converting some of its latent strength into military might.

Despite the tenor of some China commentary, it is far from fated that even economically, diplomatically and militarily ascendant China will steamroll India and ensconce itself as the predominant power in the Indian Ocean. China is a worthy competitor, but it is neither all-powerful nor exempt from the tyranny of distance. The competition, moreover, will take place in South Asia — on Indian home ground. India commands meaningful advantages within its environs — just as China commands meaningful advantages, vis-à-vis a stronger United States, when encounters take place off East Asian shorelines.

Nearby bases, concentrated forces, short distances to potential battlegrounds — all of these and more work in the home team’s favor.

In geopolitics, as in sports, the home team has a natural edge over the visitor. The U.S. armed forces play only away games; they have to prevail over local defenders on their own turf for Washington to get its way in regional controversies. That is increasingly the Chinese military’s lot as well. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was born as a local defense force for battling Nationalists and Japanese invaders. But as Beijing grows more comfortable with the security situation in East Asia, it has taken to seeking influence in faraway regions. In some cases, its muscular foreign policy grates on local powers.

Sometimes it provokes resistance.

The PLA had better get used to playing away games. Joshi spotlights the Andaman Sea as one emerging theater for Sino-Indian rivalry. Look at your map. The Andaman Sea lies west of the Strait of Malacca, the crucial artery connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. Traffic bound to or from Malacca must pass through the Andaman and Nicobar archipelagoes, two lines of islands that comprise the Andaman Sea’s western rim. It’s also possible to construe the Andamans and Nicobars as the westernmost arc of Asia’s “first island chain.”

Hence the consternation they arouse in Beijing. The first island chain originates in the Japanese home islands — some observers include the Aleutians as well — and sweeps southward through Taiwan and the Philippine Islands. Interpretations vary south of the Philippines, but it’s reasonable to trace the island chain through Indonesia, the island state that forms the southern arc of the South China Sea, and on to the Andamans and Nicobars, which curve northerly from Banda Aceh, at Indonesia’s westernmost extreme, before terminating off Burma. The first island chain encloses China’s coastline entirely. No Chinese city outflanks it.

And its occupants are all potential foes. The U.S. 7th Fleet is based in Japan, making America a resident power in East Asia. Washington maintains an informal alliance with Taiwan, and a formal one with the Philippines. China and Indonesia clash from time to time over maritime territory and fishing rights; that Jakarta has no mutual defense pact with Washington is cold comfort for Beijing. And the Andamans and Nicobars are sovereign Indian territory. PLA strategists liken them to a “metal chain” blocking passage from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean.

Why such forebodings? Because in this age of long-range precision weaponry, it’s possible for an archipelago’s inhabitants to close the straits permitting shipping to pass from one expanse to another. They could do so at minimal expense. Land-based anti-ship missiles can strike at vessels in such narrow waterways as Ten Degree Channel, which separates the Andamans to the north from the Nicobars to the south. Undersea minefields could channel and obstruct shipping. So could missile-toting submarines and surface craft loitering along the island chain.

Naval and military force puts the “metal” in the metal chain — forging hard-to-breach segments between the immovable chain links that are the islands themselves. Arming the Andamans and Nicobars, in other words, gives New Delhi a potentially commanding say over Chinese access to the Indian Ocean via the Malacca Strait. The strategic value of the archipelagoes isn’t lost on the Indian government, which founded a tri-service military command for the islands almost two decades ago. An array of small combatant and amphibious warships calls the island home.

Beijing is right to fret.

Game over? Not necessarily. The Andaman and Nicobar Command occupies a commanding geographic position, to be sure. But China already has lodgments in the Indian Ocean. For example, it erected a base at Djibouti and leased the seaport of Hambantota, in the subcontinent’s immediate near abroad. Furthermore, over 700 miles of water separates the Andamans and Nicobars from continental India. The Pentagon estimates that anti-ship ballistic missiles based in western China could target shipping traversing these seaways.

In short, the PLA need not batter down India’s metal chain by hurling itself against it. It could weaken the barricade over time by denying its defenders supplies, ammunition and reinforcements they need to keep it unbreakable. And if it can break through some other segment of the first island chain — say, the broad Miyako Strait south of Okinawa — shipping could take the circuitous route to South Asia outside the South China Sea rim. The Indian military could inconvenience Chinese merchant and military fleets by denying them their most direct route to South Asia. It might not be able to bar access altogether. New Delhi and the Andaman and Nicobar Command have no cause for complacency.

That’s why historians refer to prolonged strategic competitions as “great games.” They’re dynamic and interactive. They go through ups and downs as contestants marshal their advantages, probe constantly for weakness, and make moves and countermoves while grappling for strategic advantage. As Yogesh Joshi hints, a Sino-Indian great game is afoot in the Andaman Sea. It will take years, if not decades, of gamesmanship to determine a victor.

James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author of “A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy,” published this month. The views voiced here are his alone.

Tags Andaman and Nicobar Islands China India Maritime Southeast Asia Strait of Malacca Yogesh Joshi

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