By Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd)*
There have been some reports from New Delhi to indicate that China’s Officiating Ambassador to India made a quid-pro-quo suggestion to India seeking its support for its South China Sea (SCS) claims based on historicity to resolve the outstanding border disputes.
According to the Chinese official, some accommodation could be made on the McMahan line if India supported the claims of China in SCS. As per the article by Vice Admiral AK Singh carried in the Deccan Chronicle on 13th July 2016[i] this Machiavellian suggestion was made on April 19th in New Delhi when some of the think tanks were invited to participate in the discussion about South China Sea (SCS). Apparently the officiating Ambassador at that time is reported to have said that “Someone in future may dispute the ownership of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands”. This is also corroborated by Dr Subhash Kapila in an article carried by South Asia Analysis Group where the author has cautioned India about being complacent in the defence of Andaman and Nicobar Islands[ii] which serve as the forward posts of India and crucial for India’s maritime defence plans.
It was known that the verdict would not be favourable to China due to the untenable claims under the provisions of UNCLOS to which China is a signatory. According to the same article quoted above, when a maritime think tank visited China in May 2016, the Chinese hosts discreetly suggested that at some future date the ownership of Andaman and Nicobar could be disputed echoing the views expressed by the Chinese official on 19th April 2016 while interacting with the members of think tanks in Delhi. It is very clear that the Chinese had seen the writing on the wall as for as the award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was concerned and were working at many levels to seek support and mitigate the adversarial position in which China found itself post the verdict. This did not leave out India its big neighbour with whom the land borders remain unresolved even after some eighteen rounds of meetings and discussions. The unresolved border issue remains a thorn in the bilateral relations of the two countries.
There are no disputes as for as the maritime assets are concerned and the attempt of China to bring in the unwarranted issue of A&N can at best be termed as totally convoluted, frivolous and mischievous. At one level, it clearly demonstrates the forward thinking capability of the Chinese mind and at another level also indicates the wily ways by which it wants to enlist the support of other countries. Even after the verdict, China has been engaging the Philippines Government in bilateral talk to ensure that there is no backlash in the South China Sea. Any change in the status quo in SCS would be detrimental to the long term plans of China to establish its claimed sovereignty in SCS to uphold its illegitimate claims based on historicity.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands
There is a need to look at the A&N Islands and its strategic importance before analyzing the reasons for this misadventure by China. After the British left India, it became part of India in 1950 and became a Union Territory of India in 1956. Recorded Indian history of these Islands brings out the role of Cholas and Marathas who owned these Islands and used them for furthering their strategic ambitions. Rajendra Chola (1014-1042 CE)[iii] conquered the A&N and used this to wage wars against the Sri Wijaya Empire in Sumatra. In the 17th century, this was used as a Maratha base by the Maratha Admiral Kanhoji Angre who fought valiantly against the British and the Dutch. The Navy has named a base on the west coast of India in the honour of this Maratha Admiral who ruled the seas. He is even credited with annexing these Islands to India[iv].
It is surprising that China can even conjure up some future dispute over the A&N Islands whereas there has never been any doubt about the ownership. China has had no presence in the recorded history of A&N Islands since times immemorial and this clever ploy will not work for China and only exposes its insidious ways while dealing with its neighbours. China is concerned with its vulnerability through the Malacca Straits in to the Indian Ocean since it passes under the watchful eyes of the Tri Services command in Port Blair. The Tri services Command is watching the movement of all of China’s merchant and war ships as they are on passage through the Sea Lines of Communication.(SLOCs). Concerned with SLOC safety and energy security, China is closely monitoring the developments in A&N Islands. It even considers this geographic advantage of India as a thorn to its Indian Ocean ambitions.
The importance of the A&N Islands cannot be overstated in the ever changing maritime dynamics in the South China Sea and also the Indian Ocean. While the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are connected through the Malacca Straits, India has its Tri Services command the only joint command in Port Blair. On the face of it, it is evident that India enjoys a geographic advantage in the Indian Ocean[v] due to the possession of Island both in the Bay of Bengal and also in the Arabian Sea. While a lot has been done to ensure that these Islands are well protected and provide India with the advance warning and response capability, there is a need to shore up the Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Inter-operability, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4I2SR)[vi] architecture in the area to ensure that there are no surprises by the Chinese who already have a token presence in the Coco Islands on lease from Myanmar in the Andaman Sea. In this context, the importance of setting up a Radar Station in Narcondam Island[vii] has been covered by this author in an analysis carried both by SAAG and C3S.
With the heavy sea traffic through the 10 degree channel and the Andaman Sea, the fragile marine environment around the A&N islands also needs to be protected and there is a need for coordinated action led by the Tri Services Command by involving the nearby South East Asian countries. It has been suggested that there is an immediate need to initiate coordinated and cooperative measures through the biennial useful maritime forum Milan in Port Blair[viii]. The post Tsunami assistance for affected nations and the initiative in setting up of the Tsunami warning facility by India has been well received by the countries of the region. Also there is scope for sub regional Search and Rescue (SAR) mechanism to be put in place by involving the countries of the region post the dis appearance of MH 370 which exposed the chinks in the SAR architecture.
While there are no inputs available on the India’s response to this unofficial and cocky Chinese suggestion during interaction with think tanks in India and China, India needs to be weary of China’s efforts to apply queer logic to pressurise India by bringing in A&N ownership question to support its dubious claims in the SCS. By linking it with the possibility of resolving the land borders, China tried to provide some incentive for India to be on the Chinese side. It is clear that China was testing the waters and assessing the mood of the influential members in the think tanks on this unworthy proposal.
Whether or not China approaches India officially on this issue, in addition to supporting the provisions of UNCLOS, India should firmly reject this audacious assumption that someday in future the ownership of A&N could be contested. It should be taken as a wakeup call in terms of its preparedness in the A&N Islands. The defence of the group of Islands is indeed a top priority now along with the necessary shoring up for offensive operations as and when warranted. India should seriously examine the need to set up submarine basing facility in the Islands. India also needs to engage ASEAN in general and Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia in particular (due to the close proximity to A&N Islands) more vigorously to synergise the efforts in the Andaman Sea and in the Malacca Straits for both peace time operations and for contingencies.
It is very obvious that China today stands isolated post the verdict of the PCA and faces the danger of being branded as a violator of international obligations. The PCA verdict has come at a time when tensions in the SCS are rising. The claimed support to China’s position by other nations can be counted on one’s fingers. China is leaving no stone unturned to buttress its claims and is even willing to negotiate with India by offering to resolve the long standing border dispute in exchange for support in the South China Sea. By bringing in the hypothetical possibility of the ownership of A&N being contested at a later date by someone, it has sounded the alarm for India. India needs to work at many levels to ward off such misadventures by China. There will be no need for any official response as this was an attempt by a serving official in India and the researchers in China to see what India’s response would be for this innocuous looking suggestion. With China now eyeing A&N, India has to up the ante in terms of its readiness in these Islands and ensure that the Tri Services Command in Port Blair and the rulers in Delhi are not caught off guard.
*The author who is presently the Director of Chennai Centre of China Studies and Head of Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies
[i] http://www.deccanchronicle.com/opinion/op-ed/130716/periscope-watch-china-it-may-be-eyeing-andamans.html Article by Vice Admiral AK Singh carried in Deccan Chronicle on 13th July 2016. Accessed on 15th July 2016
[ii] http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/node/2029 Article by Dr Subhash Kapila which corroborates the interaction wit the Chinese officials both in India and in China during the interaction with think tanks. Accessed on 18th July 2016
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajendra_Chola_I the Wikipedia lists with all the references the use of Andaman Islands by Rajendra Chola 1. Accessed on 20th July 2016
[iv] http://defenceforumindia.com/forum/threads/inauguration-of-sarkhel-kanhoji-angre-memorial.76320/ Accessed on 20th July 2016
[v] http://www.newindianexpress.com/opinion/article152656.ece in an article titled “It is advantage India carried in the Indian Express updated on 16th May 2012. Accessed on 20th July 2016.
[vi] https://www.scribd.com/document/47305639/China-s-Maritime-Ambitions-by-RS-Vasan details of the importance of Andaman and Nicobar highlighted in a paper titled China’s Maritime Ambitions in the Indian Ocean available in the link of Scribd accessed on 20th July 2016
[vii] http://www.c3sindia.org/india/4095 Strategic Importance of Nicobar Islands to India has been covered in the article carried by SAAG and C3S. Accessed on 19th July 2016
[viii] in an article by this author which examined India-ASEAN Relations; Challenges & Opportunities for 21st Century vide http://www.c3sindia.org/india/4562 Accessed on 19th July 2016