Recent news report on Jun 12, 2014 has indicated that the new NDA Govt in India has finally cleared the setting up of a Coast Guard Radar Station at Narcondam. Narcondam is classified as a dormant volcanic island with a maximum height of about 712 meters and an area of 6.8 square kilometers (Map & Photos attached as a file).
This is the second highest Island in the group of Islands. It was previously claimed by Myanmar. However, with the delimitation of maritime boundaries with Myanmar it is with India now. It is also close to Coco Island which has been leased by Myanmar to China and Coco Island has the tag of being a listening post for China for decades since its leasing. However, this has been doubted by even the serving Indian military officers. The Island does have a runway which has been constructed to have an aerial connection to the remote Island. So one possibilitiy is that even if there is no permanent listening/monitoring equipment, they could be flown in as required depending on the Indian activity on the East Coast of India for missile and space research that requires monitoring.
The proposal was put up many years ago as part of the Coastal Security and surveillance measures, but was stalled due to environmental concerns. The Narcondam Hornbill is an endangered species and there were some 300 numbers only. This rare species is found only in this Island and has unique features (photos attached as a file).
The construction of the connecting roads and the living places for about ten personnel and also a Diesel Generator was ex pected to affect the habitat in the Island. Accordingly, the UPA Government had not cleared the project. The new Government however has decided to review all projects and fast track the one’s which are inescapable for national security.
The environmental lobbyists had expressed fear and reservation that the setting up of the Radar Station by the Coast Guard and the settlement of people for manning the post would come in the way of the habitation of the rare species. For many years, the environmentalists carried on a campaign to stop the Coast Guard from setting up a radar station. A lot of importance is being given to the Andaman and Nicobar group of Islands which are pristine and unique in nature. In the past, the UPA Government had been studying various related issues on environmental impact and the clearance was delayed by many years due to pressure from the environmentalists. The new Government which is working overtime and fast track them on individual merits of the case by examining all pending cases has cleared two naval projects. Narcondam Radar Station is one such project that has been cleared by the new Government and the other one is the next phase of Infrastructure project at Karwar for the Navy.
The Coast Guard and the Navy are working in tandem to ensure that coastal security is augmented by having a network of radar stations along the entire coast including along the Island chains of the country. This was necessitated post Mumbai terror attack in November 2008 during which over 166 personnel including Indian and Foreign nationals were killed by ten Pakistani terrorists who had used a hijacked fishing vessel to land on the Mumbai coast and carry out a dastardly act of targeting civilians and innocents including women and children. Many measures have been initiated to secure the coast and the installation of the radar chain along the entire length of 7516 kilometers (including the off shore Islands) is one of the many measures adopted post 26/11. Unlike the Navy, the Indian Coast Guard has a benign peace time role in the Maritime Zones of India (MZI) which also created the Indian Coast Guard.
The MZI Act of 1976 empowers the Coast Guard to keep the Exclusive Economic Zones of India under surveillance to prevent poaching, smuggling, and marine pollution and also provide Search and Rescue services in the Search and Rescue Region (SRR). It is to augment the surveillance capability of the Nation that the Coast Guard has been tasked to install surveillance radars at vantage points along the coast and Narcondam is one such post which is important for the nation and the Coast Guard to keep the areas around the sensitive Islands under surveillance. The Andaman Sea and the surrounding areas have been used in the past for illegal fishing by fishing vessels from other countries in the region. There have also been instances in the past of dumping of marine waste and even other toxic substances in and around Andaman Seas which has affected the pristine seas and the fragile environment.
Strategic Significance. The group of Islands known as Andaman and Nicobar Islands area of great strategic importance to India due to its close proximity to the Malacca Straits the gate way to international trade and commerce through the waterways in South East Asia. The group of Islands is administered by the Lt Governor and is considered as a union territory. As for as the military presence is concerned, it is now administered by the Tri Services command which was set up in 2001. The area was previously governed by the Navy and the senior most officer of the rank Vice Admiral was designated as the Fortress Commander A&N. The command of the A&N now is on rotational basis is managed by the three services. The Tri Services command has all the three services and also the Indian Coast Guard which is charged with duties related to the Maritime Zones of India. The Coast Guard has many stations/posts around the Island chain to ensure that it is able to discharge its duties as provided in the Maritime Zones of India Act of 1976.
The dependence on the choke points is of critical importance to all the nations of the world. Any disruption of the traffic through the choke points would affect economy and trade. The volume of Chinese goods moving in and out of Malacca Straits is the highest in the region and China can ill afford to have any disruptions affecting its trade and transit. According to present estimates, there are over 60,000 ships that use the Malacca Straits annually both ways carrying critical energy products and also other items for trade and commerce. Andaman and Nicobar group therefore provides the geographic advantage of being an outpost close to Malacca Straits and other straits in South East Asia to provide any advance information/warning about impending movements through the choke points.
Chinese Concerns. From the Chinese point of view, it views with concern any developments in the A&N region. Geography confers great advantage in the Indian Ocean Region to India as it is in a position to monitor all the activities not only from the mainland but also from the outposts in West and East. So Andaman and Nicobar provide that ability to monitor the movement of all vessels to and from the Indian Ocean through the Malacca Straits or any other choke point in the Region. While it has the capability to interdict any traffic, even India believes in a peaceful periphery and would not indulge in any disruption unless there is a spillover of the land battle to the seas. It is therefore in the interest of both the nations to work together and resolve the border dispute at an early date in a time bound manner.
India’s Concerns about Chinese presence. For decades, there has been mutual suspicion on the presence of Chinese monitoring agencies in Coco Island which was leased by Myanmar to China. Coco Islands has a runway and for long this small Island has been at the hub of listening activity by the Chinese. The missile and space experiments on the east coast are also susceptible to monitoring by appropriate equipment that can be airlifted to the Island as required and ships that could be deployed around Coco Islands. Myanmar enjoys good relations with China and is the beneficiary of increased assistance and cooperation particularly when the west shunned Myanmar in the past due to the military rule and what it considered as a stumble block to establishment of democracy. China has also shown increased interest in the recent decades to engage with India’s maritime neighbours.
Some of the western analysts have gone to the extent of terming this as the ‘string of pearls’ strategy or even a noose around India. The author of this piece does not endorse the concept of ‘string of pearls’ or the intentions ascribed to the engagement of Chinese presence in Indian Ocean. China and India are both huge importers of energy products through the sea routes. . With increased dependence on the sea routes for trade and transit, China has initiated certain measures to secure the sea lines and the choke points. So the economic investments in Hambanthota, Gwadar, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Maldives are both to enhance the value of economic engagement with the Asian smaller neighhbours and use the economic leverage so acquired for strategic advantage as and when required in the future. Purely translated this would mean that at a future date, PLA Navy units would have the option of staging through the deep water ports in the region where these have been built with Chinese assistance and financial help to serve Chinese national interests. It is this possibility that is being factored in to the strategic calculus of Indian Ocean dynamics.
The PLA- Navy along with the Indian Navy units has participated in the Anti-piracy patrols off Somalia since end 2008. The cooperation for anti-piracy between China and India has been remarkable. There have been instances when the Indian Navy has responded to the calls of Chinese merchant vessels when challenged by pirates. The participation in the anti-piracy patrols by PLA-Navy units has provided the Chinese navy the experience of operating away from home ports to meet national objectives. However, there are still serious differences along the land borders which even led to a military clash in 1962. Both China and India are ancient civilisations and the combined economy of the two countries was the highest in the world in the 14th century. It is being suggested that the cycle has come full circle and it is again the time for these two Asian economies to lead the world. With the change of leadership in India, there are very high expectations and India China cooperation is on the top of the agenda along with the resolution of the border dispute.
Conclusion. The clearance of the setting up of the Radar Station given to the Indian Coast Guard is a post Mumbai terror activity aimed at securing the vulnerable coast line of India. The location is also important from the point of view of keeping the waters around Coco Islands under surveillance for any suspicious Chinese activity. Any surveillance equipment such as the CG Radar being installed would also provide vital inputs to the C4ISR system being put in place in the sensitive Islands. This would also enable monitoring of the Chinese naval activity in the North Andaman Sea and around Coco Islands. The presence of illegal fishermen, drug and arms runners and those inimical to security and national interests needs to be deterred and the Narcondam Coast Guard radar will do just that. However, the genuine concerns of the environmentalists, about the ill effects of such human activity, on local fauna and flora needs to be factored at all stages of installation of the Radar and support systems.
(Courtesy : South Asia Analysis Group)
(The writer Commodore R.S.Vasan , is Director of the Centre for Asia Studies , Chennai and an Associate of C3S. email: email@example.com)