India and Indonesia held their defence dialogue between the defence ministers on July 27, 2020 and discussed issues related to defence cooperation, promoting investment in each other’s defence enterprises and helping each other in extending logistical support. This meeting was held in person, instead of online meeting.
India has started engaging its eastern Indian Ocean neighbours particularly Indonesia, Australia, and island nations in the Southern Indian Ocean region such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and French territories spread across the Indian Ocean. India’s entry into Indian Ocean Commission (an intergovernmental group of island nations- Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Reunion islands, and Seychelles, dealing with maritime governance) as observer was facilitated by France. India and France have started conducting of regular maritime surveillance sorties from Reunion islands. This shows that India is keen on developing strategic and defence ties with France in the Indian Ocean region. This also hints to the fact that Indian navy has been working on ‘double fish hook’ strategy.
This ‘Fish Hook’ strategy of India is expected to complement the fish hook strategy undertaken by the US along with its allies in the Pacific Ocean. Media reports also state that China has floated many surveillance pods in South China Sea to monitor movements of US and its allies’ ships and submarines. With the upgradation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and an investment of more than US $ 6.67 million which has been allocated during Prime Minister Modi visit to the islands, shows that India have larger designs with regard to these islands. This includes developing jetties, deep sea harbour and extending landing strips to facilitate landing of maritime surveillance aircrafts. There is also proposal of developing hangers for stationing of Sukhoi-30MKI aircrafts on a permanent basis.
In the past also when India was upgrading the facility in late 1980s it was seen as a launching pad erstwhile Soviet Union to make inroads into the Indian Ocean, and there were apprehensions raised by countries such as Indonesia and Australia. At that point of time the Andaman and Nicobar island group was stated to be known as Fortress Andaman(FORTRAN).Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC) was developed at Port Blair in 2001 as first integrated joint command centre. India again is exploring this possibility of upgrading the facilities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands so as to project its power in the Bay of Bengal and Closer to The Malacca Straits.
China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy has developed a concept that India has been surrounded by Chinese developed ports (Gwadar, Hambantota and Chittagong) developed in connivance with the ruling regimes in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The ‘String of Pearls’ has gained lot of academic mileage in the international discourse related to the Indian Ocean security. As a countermeasure, India started engaging its littoral partners which includes the formidable navies in the region including US, France and Australia- all strategic partners of India. With US India has already engaged through the LEMOA agreement giving access to each other’s military bases and naval ports.
In June 2020, India has signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) with Australia which will provide support for maritime reconnaissance missions undertaken by the two countries with the use of their island facilities. The islands which have been listed for such a logistics arrangement is Andaman and Nicobar Islands(India) and Coco(Keeling) islands of Australia. Australia has been upgrading its facilities in the Coco Islands and also trying to upgraded facilities in Darwin and Keynes. This kind of complimentary logistics support agreement would enhance surveillance and reconnaissance activities of the two countries. Apart from Australia, India has also signed a port development project with Indonesia and has agreed to developed civilian and military facilities in the Sabang port which is located at the northern tip of Aceh archipelago. This acts as the first fish hook strategy spanning across the eastern Indian Ocean starting from Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sabang port(Indonesia) and thereafter extending all the way to Coco(Keeling) Islands, the tip of this fish hook lands at the DiegoGarcia, the US military base in Chagos archipelago.
Similarly, the western fishhook strategy starts from Duqm port in Oman where India has entered into Maritime Transport Agreement and has gained access facility for Indian navy. India has also been working with regard to entering an agreement with the Djibouti so as to avail the logistic support in the Horn of Africa. Further engagements with Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar through training and visiting of the ships as well as giving them coastal radar systems, and few fast attack crafts shows that India is keen on anchoring its naval security through these engagements.
France has been very keen on developing maritime linkages with India and also undertaking fortnightly sorties through maritime surveillance aircraft such as P– 8 I Poseidon. The surveillance sorties have started in January 2020 and likely to continue in regular intervals along with France. France has acknowledged the fact that in order to secure its territories in the Indian Ocean region it has to build confidence and interoperability with the Indian Navy. Therefore if one draws a line connecting the ports then it would look like a fish hook which again will land in the end at Diego Garcia.
The strategy which is known as ‘double fish hook’ strategy would help India in countering Chinese activities undertaken by unmanned submersibles and also know the activities of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean region. China has increased deployment of its personnel at its Djibouti base, and has been enhancing its presence in the Indian Ocean region. The reclamation of one of the Maldivian islands-Feydhoo Finolhu Island, which is nearly 600 km from Indian coast, shows that China is willing to take risks so as protect its energy supply lines and maritime commerce. In fact, its Maritime Silk Road strategy would depend much on Chinese military heft in the region and also its dominance in the strategic waters of the Indian Ocean.
India has also understood the importance of blocking Chinese maritime traffic in case the border issue aggravates to the point of a war. During the 1971 war with Pakistan which led to the emergence of Bangladesh, the role of the Indian Navy has been appreciated in blocking the Karachi port, and also helping in protecting the Bangladesh from any external intervention.
This double fishhook strategy would depend much on development of the facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which includes developing airports in the Northern reaches of this island group, increasing the maritime traffic as well as developing docking facilities for naval ships. The chief of defence staff has already alluded to the fact that it will be a joint command of the three services and also it will be a rendezvous point for the Quad forces. In one of the RAND studies titled ‘Overseas Basing of US Military Forces’ it was stated that Andaman and Nicobar Islands can be a very good operating base for US drones as it would give edge in case of operations against China. The development of this double fish hook strategy would undermine String of Pearls and would give India an edge in case of tensions between the two countries in the maritime domain. This in every variably will mean that Chinese inroads into Indian Ocean will be noticed and countered by the Indian navy with Quad countries before it can change maritime power configuration in the Indian Ocean region.