Hawks in Delhi who are suspicious of Chinese long-term aims say bluntly that India and its friends will acquire some sway over China only once the Andamans are treated as a “chokepoint”, a place to disrupt Chinese trade in the event of any future confrontation. Four-fifths of Chinese oil imports go through the strait. Chinese naval strategists warn of Indian designs to drop an “iron curtain” there…. Certainly, activity on the islands is growing. An air base that opened two years ago in Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar, has taken Indian military aircraft 300km closer than before to the Malacca Strait. Other airstrips are reportedly being built or lengthened to handle big aircraft, including the Hercules transport plane. Airfields for helicopters will follow. The navy wants to deploy drones to track passing ships. New coastguard stations serve a similar purpose. Regular naval exercises with neighbours are interspersed with big international training manoeuvres hosted in the Andamans and named “Millan”. The most recent involved 17 navies in a disaster-relief exercise meant to mark a decade after the 2004 Asian tsunami.
Such expansion, however, lacks clear purpose. The Andamans have a population of 400,000 and can support a large military presence only with difficulty. Communications are poor—at least until a long-promised submarine cable from the mainland arrives. And the economy is dependent on money and goods from mainland India. Mr Singh argues that for the Andamans to become robust, their economy must first develop. For that, he wants a big boost to tourism, including direct flights from Phuket in Thailand, only 45 minutes’ flying time away. Fisheries should also grow. One businessman in Port Blair shows off a haul of several dozen carcasses of huge yellowfin tuna. Yet real development faces all sorts of hurdles. They include a lack of available land because of strict—and certainly necessary—protection for indigenous tribal groups and valuable rainforest. India may yet develop the islands into a big military asset, but it has to balance the interests of civilians, too. It is going to be a slow boat.
The Andaman Islands: From outpost to springboard, Economist, Sept. 13, 2014, at 46