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India’s Strategic Dimensions in Malacca Strait By Vithiyapathy Purushothaman

C3S Paper No. 0069/ 2015


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“To be secure on the land, we must be supreme at sea”

                                                                                      – Jawaharlal Nehru.

Over several decades the sea has become the most imperative source for trade and commerce. India being one of the oldest maritime civilizations, its most predominant natural geographical location provides advantages in trade plus security for its main land. India’s natural maritime outpost Andaman and Nicobar plays a vital role in monitoring the world’s most strategic and trafficked Malacca Strait, through which 60,000 to 95,000 merchant, oil and gas cargos[1], pass through. It makes the strait an energy lifeline for Southeast and East Asian countries.


Geographical locations of Malacca Strait

This article will answer these questions. Why does the Malacca Strait matter to India?  Why does India want to ensure the security of the Malacca Strait? What are the security measures taken to counter piracy in Malacca Strait?  What is the strategic relation between India and the coastal states of Malacca Strait and how does it benefit India’s national interest?  How do they jointly defend the threats in this region? What is India’s role in securing Malacca Strait? How does Andaman and Nicobar command (ANC) help India in safeguarding its homeland? What are the advantages of modernizing ANC?

Strategic Importance

According to the Law of the Sea, Straits are defined as: “Straits customarily used for international navigation”[2]. There are 250 International straits around the world which connects two parts of EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) or the high seas[3],where the safety of Malacca strait is crucial to numerous countries, as the region connects Indian Ocean with South China Sea and Pacific Ocean.

The most imperative strategic feature is that, about 60,000 to 94,000 merchant ships,  oil and gas cargos that sail annually through the strait, which becomes thrice and twice more trafficked than Panama Canal and Suez Canal respectively[4]. The littoral states of the Malacca Strait, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, have the primarily responsibility for the safety of this crucial waterway. Due to its proximity to the strait, India too has high stakes and an indirect role for its security.[5]

Classifying India’s interest over the strait into strategic and commercial, the 500 nautical mile funneled waterway serves as a most strategic choke point to India and about 40% of imports comes through Malacca strait. The Strait of Malacca are in many ways an important waterway and their status and disputes over them reveal in a focal manner many of the present problems in this field.

Together with the adjoining Strait of Singapore they provide the shortest sea route between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. An alternative to this route are the Lombok strait – going between the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok – but their use means, for example, an extra 1.000-mile trip and nearly three days’ extra journey for the tankers coming from Persian Gulf.


Malacca Strait Oil flow

An advantage of the Lombok route is, however, that it is much deeper and ships of all sizes can use it while the Straits of Malacca are usable for tankers no larger than 200.000 dwt. The narrowest point of the Straits of Malacca is 4-8 nautical miles, and in the outlet where it is a part of Malaysian and Indonesian territory, the width of the sea passage is 11 nautical miles. The narrowest point of the Straits of Singapore is only 2-3 miles.[6]

Historical Analysis

From time immemorial Southeast Asia’s fortune flows through Malacca strait that serves as an intercontinental and intra Asia link, facilitating the travel of goods, exchange of culture and flow of trade. Before Hippalus discovered Monsoon wind in 45-47 AD[7], Indian Kingdom such as Cholas, Andras and Chalukyas had a greater maritime trade with Southeast Asian countries through Malacca Strait.


Indian Sea Route

  During the reign of the South Indian Chola emperor, Rajendra Chola, periodical encroachments were made into the Srivijaya Empire in Malaya and Indonesia.  His legacy of interests in the region ranging from Bay of Bengal to South China Sea which prevailed for several centuries  . Hence this most strategic choke point paved the way to those interested in the coastal states of Malacca Strait. From the 10th century till date the interest of this region took different dimensions that projected power through the Malacca Strait.


Chola Dynasty Malacca Strait

However, during the Colonial war Malacca Strait had become a monitoring post for European counties through which trade, culture and defence overflowed in the region. Portuguese turned the Malacca Strait into a monitoring post by placing their cannons on the shores of Malacca.  The Portuguese, Dutch, French and British power struggles in the Malacca Strait region in order to dominate in the time of colonial era is remarkable. The Japanese occupation of Singapore in 1942 gave control over Malacca Strait.  India’s importance of Malacca strait can be sensed from two notable naval operations such as Operation Cockpit and Operation Dukedom that took place in Malacca Strait.  Significantly, Operation Cockpit took place on 19 April 1944, when the Allied forces joined together for a bombing raid in Japanese Port and oil facilities on Sabang Island located in Northern tip of Sumatra. A year later, the British Search and Destroy Operation Dukedom took place on 1 May 1945 where Japanese cruiser Haguro was sunk in the strait[8].  After independence of littoral states of Malacca namely Malaysia, Indonesia and formation of Singapore paved a greater difference in 19th century power struggle in the strait.

From 1970, 37,000 oil tankers passed through the strait which satisfied the energy needs of East Asian countries[9].  Major shipping powers had demanded to keep the strait open and pave an international waterway with no unwarranted restrictions for its use. But tripartite agreement concluded on November 11, 1971[10], by three littoral states Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia gave a clear view of its decision, where the decision concluded the joint management of both Malacca and Singapore Strait. Apparently, the littoral states of Malacca are not against passage of foreign ships through the strait but they were against the international control over the strait. But Japan’s position on the strait is that it was ready to accept 3 miles of territorial waters in case of Malaysia and Indonesia. Soviet Union and the US advocated freedom of passage through the strait. Yet China had bitterly rejected the policies of major shipping nations. However India’s regional cooperation helped the littoral states to defend the threats along with international joint cooperation mechanisms.

Regional and International Cooperation’s in Malacca Strait

Beyond all historical international relations of Malacca Strait the independent littoral states joined hands with navigating countries through Malacca Strait to counter threats. The complexity of the regional trade and the international flow of goods, become a question of several security cooperation’s, which subjected Malacca Strait as one of the threat zones of international shipping. This strategic choke point further attracted the international community due to its complexity in monitoring both internal and external flows and their usage as well as security of those harbors is subjected to threats. Obviously, these security threats and several traditional as well as non-traditional threats brought the world community in to the picture to assist the littoral states to secure the sea lanes of communication. At the end for attaining the regional goal of a secured strait, a leading regional power should take a major responsibility in the phase of security and well established cooperation in countering the threats.


Malacca Strait Trade flow

There are several existing and perceived threats in the region which make India and other user states of Malacca Strait, to frame numerous agreements as well as safeguard via patrol ships in the strait. The existing threats include piracy, terrorism, arms trafficking, while the perceived threats are loss of control over the littoral states of Malacca, patrolling of the ships that sail through the strait, power struggle, loss of naval bases and trade race in docking the ships in littoral states.


Malacca Strait Piracy

Piracy in Malacca Strait

Further, it is alleged that other terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, such as the Abu Sayyaf Group, Free Aceh Movement, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), are also engaging in arms trafficking, maritime piracy, or terrorist attacks in the region. Piracy in the Malacca strait is believed to be decreased day-by-day due to the cooperation that exists between the littoral and the user states.

Bilateral and trilateral agreements have been implemented over the years to combat maritime crimes with varying degrees of success. Multinational efforts notably ReCAAP, MSSP, EiS, IEG, MALSINDO, OPV, Five Power Defence Agreements and burden sharing initiatives have also increased in recent years and have improved the effectiveness of responses to incidents, helping to escort the gradual decline in piracy incidences that the Straits have experienced since the late 2000s[11]. Thus, India’s naval diplomacy in Malacca Strait began from Look East Policy and cooperation was pursued with littoral states through several bilateral defence, economic and science agreements. Hence, India helped patrolling the strait on behalf of Indonesia and Malaysia while the Indian Air force trained Su-30 MKM for two and half years from 2008. Further its extended cooperation with multilateral naval exercises in the region such as MILAN and LIMA helped the littoral states to train on defending against the threat and also to cooperate with India. India’s Strategic Outpost Andaman and Nicobar Island served its need when Far East Naval Command (FENC) was established. Through BIMSTAC and FTA India’s trade relation with ASEAN expanded and resulted in cooperative development of a 1400 km road corridor connecting India-Myanmar and Thailand for economic development. India has its Hawk-eye strategic outpost which is situated in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. ANC which integrates NAS Shibpur, Tri Service Command, Carnic Air-Force Command , INS Kurdip and INS BAAZ from northernmost tip of Andaman to the southernmost tip of Indira point that is 90nm from Band-a-Aceh. India managed to play a highly positive and cautious role by augmenting and cooperating in the regional efforts.

India’s Strategic Relation with the Littoral States of Malacca

India’s cooperation and several MoU’s signed between the littoral states of Malacca Strait helped to ensure the reach in the region. The mutual cooperation is attained through MoU’s to attain the strong cooperation of security.

India- Malaysia cooperation  

India and Malaysia enjoy the very long history of trade and cultural relations. The two countries celebrated the 50th anniversary in 2007 for their foundation of diplomatic engagement. These traditionally close and friendly nations have their regular summits and meetings. India and Malaysia agreed to work on a framework for Strategic Partnership under former P. M Dr. Manmohan Singh from 26 to 28 October 2010[12] and signed these six documents.

  1. Agreement towards implementing Comprehensive Economic Cooperation

  2. Agreement (CECA) between India and Malaysia on 1st July 2010;

  3. MoU on Cooperation in the field of Traditional Systems of Indian Medicine

  4. MoU on Cooperation in the field of Tourism

  5. MoU on Cooperation in the field of IT & Services

  6. Cultural Exchange Programme (CEP) and

  7. Agreement between CSIR of India and UNIK of Malaysia[13]


India Malaysia Cooperation

India participates in different cooperative mechanism with Malaysia with a mechanism in both Straits of Malacca and Singapore and also contributed for the enhancement of navigational safety and environmental protection IMO Projects (Project 1 and Project 4). Apart from IAF training teams deployed in Malaysia for two and a half years to train Malaysian Pilots on the SU-30SKM aircraft, there are also other measures taken by Indian naval ships by making regular port calls in Port Klang and Kota Kinabalu by ICGS Sankalp, INS Ranvijay and INS Airawat in March, May and August 2011 respectively. This was followed by the 1st Training Squadron of the Indian Navy (INS Tir, INS Krishna and ICGS Veera) which made port calls at Port Klang[14]

India-Indonesia Cooperation

After the independence of two democratic nations, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Sukarno sowed the seeds of relationship between the two countries through cooperation in Non-Alignment. According to the history of India and one of the oldest epics or historical recordings where it is believed that Sukriva went to Yawadvipa (Java)[15] in search of Sita. This shows the awareness and the exploration of the region where in medieval times maritime traders had travelled from the shores of Mahanathi to the eastern region of Indonesia before maps came into being or the Oceanic currents were discovered[16]. This historical relation of these two countries today sees them joining hands in countering the threat in Malacca Strait. They ensure its security with regional cooperation, representation in international forums, mutual understanding in the aspects of security is stronger as well as sharing of scientific information and recourses to ensure security in order to fight against terrorism.[17]


India Indonesia Cooperation

In the process of building the peaceful security order both nations strongly support each other in fighting against terrorism, piracy and arms trafficking in the region.

India-Singapore Cooperation

India and Singapore enjoy deep defence relations in the post Cold-War era. The bilateral defence cooperation which started in 1991 became a stepping stone for the dynamic relationship between these nations. The regular bilateral exercises between Indian and Singapore started from 1993. These exercises included anti-submarine warfare (ASW) maneuvers. Later in 1994, an MoU was signed to institutionalize bilateral navy access to ASW along with access to Indian submarine training which India has never done before with any other state.  Hence India also engaged with Singapore in Passing Exercises (PASSEX) along with multinational exercise MILAN with other ASEAN countries.  Further, the 2003 Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) paved the way for deepening defence ties between both the countries that raised the tempo of bilateral defence cooperation.  With this cooperation India and Singapore focused on international threats in the region such as terrorism and maritime security, while looking forward to establishing intelligence exchanges and a defence policy dialogue as well as expanding additionally by deepening exchanges and exercises between the two defence forces. [18]

DCA further gave way to the annual India-Singapore Defence Policy Dialogue which began in March 2004. It is directed towards regular high-level discussions on regional as well as bilateral security issues including advancement of defence relations between Singapore and India. The steadily deepened expansion of both militaries increased the scope of cooperation between the various services.  SIMBEX exercise provided the platform for both countries in bilateral exercise which were held on April 2009 in South China Sea and included manoeuvres by maritime patrol aircraft from both sides. The navies also carried out joint patrolling in both straits of Malacca and Singapore. Hence, India and Singapore continue to enhance their bilateral naval ties via port visits, combined, joint exercises and exchange of intelligence. In August 2009, Singapore and India signed another five-year agreement institutionalizing defence ties between the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the Indian Army (IA).[19]

India’s Strategic Role in Malacca Strait

Since the regional cooperation between India and the Malacca Strait’s littoral states had proliferated in the 19th century the security of the strait directly or diplomatically is a subject of concern for India. Beyond countering all non-traditional threats India’s strategic interest in securing the strait plays a major for securing mainland from the new security environments. India finds its way in order to stabilize the regional security.1 The BIMSTEC (Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic cooperation) initiative gains a politico-economic cooperation in the region through which India stabilizes the support and gains its interest in the region. Major point of focus about Malacca Strait is that, it has become a gateway of ‘Look East Policy’ and further it reaches the bilateral and regional cooperation with several cooperation mechanisms such as ASEAN Regional Forum to address the non-traditional threats in the region. It has now become difficult to reinforce these ties due to changing regional security environment. Beyond all remarkable cooperation in the region the establishment of ANC (Andaman and Nicobar Command) grows to be need of the hour, in turn to secure the strait on the interest of defence projection as well as economic stability in the region.[20]

Andaman and Nicobar Islands

A&N (Andaman and Nicobar) is a 572-islands archipelagic chain in Bay of Bengal, but only 36 are inhabited. Arakan Yomas submarine mountain range extends to form this island from Myanmar to Indonesia. These islands are separated from Indian mainland by an average of about 1,200 km, hence giving greater access to the Strait of Malacca. The northern edge of the islands is 18km from Myanmar’s Coco islands and the southernmost Indira point is about 160 km away from its northernmost tip of Indonesia (Sumatra). India’s 30 % of EEZ area is located in A&N[21].  These islands are a home of sea food export by hosting a rare species in its region. India sends the products to Singapore which is located 920 nm[22] from Port Blair.  Along with this there are other resources such as timber. India is planning to build an international trade centre and also looking to build an oil terminal and trans-shipment port in Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar to accommodate the increasing oil trade in this region.[23]


Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Andaman and Nicobar Command

ANC (Andaman and Nicobar Command) plays a vital role in establishment of Hawk-eye in the region. Its technical advancement and the cooperation of data sharing paves the way for India to advance its security reach to safeguard its national interest of the country. Hence this natural outpost serves the need of Indian naval defence by providing all capability in surveillance and monitoring the strait. India is keenly looking at infrastructural development in the region which will enable it to strengthen the strategic role of this natural outpost. By establishing FENC (Far East Naval Command) India attains the Hawk-eye in this region to secure its mainland from any threats and will also actively participate in the ‘Eye-in-sky’ which is a part of MSSI (Malacca Strait Security Initiatives) carried out by Malacca Strait littorals along with Thailand to ensure Joint-Air patrol in this region. India is one among the countries which is keen to participate in MSSI for the safety of navigation. India is strategically strong by establishing ANC.  It produces a positive impression and its close naval engagement with the littoral states of Malacca strait will be a new beginning for different defence cooperation’s which may be a positive outcome in the region. India being technically strong and capable of producing the radar equipments for reconnaissance, can also supply the equipments to the littoral states to ensure the security to the different reach.

From the six fold strategies and primary objective of Indian Navy we can clearly understand that it is keen to increase naval spending and naval capability in the region by strengthening its infrastructure further with active naval diplomacy through the deployment of naval assets in Indian Ocean region and ensuring security of chokepoints that connects Indian Ocean to the world.  It is clear that India’s interest in safety and security of the strait along with the naval diplomacy and regional cooperation makes it stronger in defence reach and take the national interest in different shape and dimensions.[24]

By modernising India’s strategic natural outpost of Andaman and Nicobar, India will reach its height by defending all traditional and non-traditional threats from East and it will act as a defence shield for mainland India. ANC will help India in different maritime operations such as assisting strategic neighbors or friendly nations in their operations. India is ready to assist HADR (Humanitarian assistance and Disaster relief), anti-terrorism, anti-piracy operations, LIMO (Low Intensity maritime operations) to combat asymmentric warfare, and arms/drug trafficking, to maintain good order at sea. Hence India will bring multilateral strategic partnership internationally by ensuring the safety and security of sea lanes of communication by taking a lead in assistance in this region[25]

ANC will ensure maritime domain awareness by effective understanding of all activities that takes place in the region through different mediums such as air, land, sea and cyberspace. Obviously, for taking effective decision the domain awareness is essential at different levels of strategic operations that include both tactical and operational in real-time. The satellite based comprehensive communication capability is achieved by the launch of Rukmini (GSAT 7) that increased the long term surveillance and communication capability. Hence through round the clock surveillance India will confidently defend all sort of threats in the region and will also bring confidence to immediate neighbors and littoral states of Malacca strait for combating the threats. This ANC ensures deployment of large number of sensors along with AIS (automatic identification system) and LRIT (Long Range identification and tracking) further with the use of HUMINT (Human Intelligence) and TECHINT (technical intelligence) which enable the command for network centric operations. This will help India reach the real time data fusion as well as assist the region with identification operations with seamless connectivity.

Therefore, since from time immemorial since when India’s oldest civilization worshiped the sun, the concept of Looking at east has existed. History teaches us the way South Indian emperor Rajendra Cholan who learnt the importance of Malacca in the region, established his subordinate empire through the strait where the trade of the nation proliferated. Hence the Malacca strait is more strategic location to India. As per the geography is concerned, it has a clear strategy to protect its national interest on its own. To master the dominance in the Indian Ocean region, India has valuable steps to protect its strait that paves way into its ocean interest. Examining the history of the Malacca Strait we can clearly understand how important the Malacca strait is, especially in establishment of its culture, the strait has played a major role in the formation of its littoral states. The establishment of the empire through the strait and capture of Malacca during World Wars changed the phase of the battle ground both in South and East Asian region. Hence the medieval period gives a view of analysis that the states which lies on the shores of Malacca was established further due to the relation with Japan and China.  From this we can clearly recognize that powers controlled the strait has greater influence in one or both shores of Malacca Strait.

The regional and international cooperation in the Malacca Strait helps India to play a vital role in establishing a strong relation with the littoral states. However, the Memorandum of Understanding between India and Malacca Strait littorals helps to deepen relations to defend all sorts of threat in the region. India being technically sound in this region, through several defence technology productions and satellite launches,  empowers the region by sharing both technical and satellite information for different operations. India’s capability in surveillance and monitoring the Malacca Strait has been increased by infrastructural development of the tri-command in ANC.  However, it provides a gateway to South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. India’s interest in the Malacca Strait strategically paves the way to reach distant heights for the policy makers to ensure India’s naval and economic presence in the region. Hence ANC provides confidence to India to build its strength through the gateway to reach further, by securing its strategic interest in securing the gateway both in peace as well as in war. This gives hope to India’s trade and policy to expand its reach to South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean in near future.

REFERENCES:

[1]  Sudhir Devare. (2006). India & Southeast Asia: Towards Security Convergence.  Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

[2]  United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  (A/CONF. 62/122, 1982),  Article38(2). Retrieved Jan 11, 2015,  from   http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf

[3] Alexander, L. (1986). Navigational Restrictions within the New LOS Context. Peace Dale: RI. p. 99.

[4]  Anil Kumar Singh. (2003). India’s Security Concerns in the Indian Ocean Region. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications. p.15.

[5] Sudhir Devare. (2006). India & Southeast Asia: Towards Security Convergence.  Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 9.

[6]  Bill Tarrant. (2010). Malacca Strait is a strategic ‘chokepoint’. Retrieved Jan 23, 2015, from  http://in.reuters.com/article/2010/03/04/idINIndia-46652220100304

[7]   Sila, T., & Raut. L. N. (2006). Monsoon wind and maritime trade: a case study of historical evidence from Orissa. New Delhi: Current Science,  90( 6).

[8] The Royal New Zealand Navy.(2014). Retrieved Jan 27, 2015 from http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Navy-c23.html

[9]  Richard, E. (1972). Japanese Economic Policies and Security. New York: Adelphi Papers.

[10]   Dennis, R., & Sanjay, C. (2005). Energy Security and the Indian Ocean Region. New Delhi: South Asian  Publications. p. 12.

[11] Maritime Security in the Straits of Malacca. (2013).  Retrieved Jan 15, 2015, from http://www.academia.edu/1325171/Maritime_Security_in_the_Straits_of_Malacca

[12]  Bilateral Relations.(2013). Retrieved July 06, 2014, from http://www.indianembassyrabat.com/Bilateral.html

[13]  MoUs/Agreements signed between India and Malaysia. (2010).  Retrieved Jan 06, 2015,  from      http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=66600

[14]  India-Malaysia Relations. (2014). Retrieved Jan15 2015, from http://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Malaysia_July_2014.pdf

[15]  Kamlesh Kapur (2010), History of Ancient India. New Delhi: Sterling Publication Private Limited. P. 465.

[16] Sila Tripati. (2011). Ancient maritime trade of the eastern Indian littoral. Current Science. Vol.100. No. 7. p. 1082.

[17]  Moving Forwards, Slowly: India-Indonesia Relations in the Twenty-First Century (2014).  Retrieved March 07, 2015, from   http://www.futuredirections.org.au/files/sap/Moving_Forwards_Slowly_-_India-Indonesia_Relations_in_the_Twenty-First_Century.pdf

[18] India-Singapore defence relations: Changing geopolitics. (2014). Retrieved March 7, 2015, from http://www.governancenow.com/news/regular-story/india-singapore-defence-relations-changing-geopolitics

[19]  India-Singapore Bilateral Relations. (2013). Retrieved march 07, 2017, from        http://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Brief__for_MEA_s_website_-_Jan_2013-1.pdf

[20]  John,  B. (2005). The Growing Prospects for Maritime Security in Southeast Asia, Naval War. College Review, 58(3).

[21] John,  B. (2005). The Growing Prospects for Maritime Security in Southeast Asia, Naval War. College Review, 58(3).

[22]  Somvanshi, V.S. (2004). Archipelagos within the Indian EEZ – Geographical Advantages and Opportunities for Fisheries Development. New Delhi: Journal of Indian Ocean Studies. 12 (2).

[23]  Hoden, F., Sinnappah, A., & Kenneth, M. (Eds.). (2004). Maritime India.  New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

[24] David, S. (2007). India’s aspirations and strategy. Retrieved June 06, 2014, from  http://vandemataram.info/indias-aspirations-and-strategy/

[25]  Singh, K.R. (2003).  Maritime Violence and Non-State Actors: With Special Reference to the Andaman Sea and its Environment (pp 16-21). New Delhi: Dialogue, 8(4).

(Vithiyapathy.P is a Research Officer in Center for Asia studies and Chennai Centre for China Studies. He can be reached at vithiyapathy@gmail.com. Twitter: @Vithiyapathy)

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