The Great Nicobar Choke: A Tri-Services Debate

"Do international trade vessels heading East fly only the Chinese flag? - How does one identify which ships are to be embargoed? Military to military is one story - blockading international trade may need a second look" Opines Air Mshl Sumit Mukherjee

The Great Nicobar Choke: A Tri-Services Debate


An article titled 'The Great Nicobar Choke' by Rear Admiral Raja Menon (Retd) was published by Indian Express on Mar 14, 2023.

How India’s new naval base at Andamans will force Beijing to reassess its strategy
The downstream effect will be seen in the coming years when China begins to treat India as an equal, because again, tactical calculation will make the truth obvious in Beijing

This was circulated by MVI to our military veterans  requesting for their responses regarding the wisdom of this recent strategic initiative from India to control/block future movement of Chinese commercial and naval war ships in this region. The tri-services responses received from our veterans and published below indicate different individual military perceptions regarding the feasibility and implications of this development in context with our adversary China, other options available to India and the best way forward. Collectively all these responses do throw some light on the subject and linked issues. However, there is a lot more that needs to be known and clarified as highlighted by Air Mshl Mukherjee in his response. Hence, readers are requested to kindly send their responses to enrich this debate.

Col. Vinay Dalvi, MVI

Air Mshl Bhushan Gokhale

There is no doubt that A&N is strategically located to intercept shipping movements not only towards Malaccca but also can effectively interdict shipping on the China-Myanmar corridor. Both Navy and Air Force need to be based on the islands.

Gp Capt Johnson Chacko

Such are the issues that need to be considered while developing the Indian Military Doctrine. A major tri-service base in the Nicobar will definitely signal Indian power projection. However, IAF has the capability to target surface Forces in the straits of Malacca, from the mainland itself. We should have a powerful base there.

Cmde Srikant Kesnur

To a large extent yes! very apt and relevant. Will continue to be so, if we remain on course and build a full fledged base. Of course, it may not be as triumphal as Menon suggests but will give us lots of advantages.

Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Col Rajinder Kushwaha

Lofty thoughts without taking into account your own capabilities and enemy strength!

Think if you can choke on your own against China and USA? It is allowing yourself over-capabilities. Two petty Aircraft carriers and just a few nuclear submarines do not make you great Naval power.

Choking of Nicobar can be a desirable aim but work towards it and gain this capability. No need to go public and alert your enemies!

All the same, it is time to pay more attention to Navy instead of Army and IAF. Besides guarding about 4200 Kms Eastern coastline which includes A& N group of islands and domination of India’s EEZ — Navy has a major role to play in any future war. Also, there is no need to waste money on more aircraft carriers but invest more in Nuclear submarines. Principle should be DENIAL of INDIAN OCEAN than DOMINATION. Choking of sea lane is better done by nuclear subs.

Brig Sanjay Sangwan

LAC dispute with China is a legacy from the previous century when Communist China was operating from its strength of a large PLA army and exerting itself as a regional power while India was still finding its feet as a new independent dominion democracy under a pacifist govt and surfacing from the aftermath of partition and communal riots both in West and East. Taking advantage China annexed Tibet and Pakistan gifted Aksai Chin to China while India just meekly saw it unfold with a physically divided military between India and Pakistan and weakened by lack of a political will. India  had a butter vs guns dilemma and voted for butter which led to a defeat in 1962. It left a scar on Indian psyche and a larger perception globally. In subsequent decades India remained engrossed in domestic politics which China by virtue of a Communist rule pushed ahead with Four Modernisations. They aggressively pursued their Middle Kingdom ambition focussed on economy and technological advancements. Their policy of becoming the global manufacturing hub using cheap labour paid off handsomely with globalisation of trade and commerce. Integration of economies led to technology support to China though their efforts through backdoor means can't be downplayed. The divide only increased and probably fuelled Chinese ambition further. The OBOR initiative with aspirations of global dominance through economic activities brought the LAC into focus again because of CPEC and the linkages via Myanmar and possibly Bangladesh. Indian infrastructure was still poor both in all sectors of the LAC which possibly encouraged CPC further. From India Army the LAC was dormant and activated only by China at their convenience with IA only responding.

However, Galwan in 2020 and Tawang in 2022 have proved to China and the world that India today is evenly matched on the LAC if not stronger locally. PLA today lacks combat experience while IA has been constantly in combat all along especially in HAA. Yet, by virtue of stronger infrastructure and ability to sustain a larger,  technological advanced force on LAC and shorter aerial distance to heartland in India, China still may have an advantage which is fast reducing by the speedy development of infrastructure and missile capabilities. Yet, fighting on LAC would remain a battle of attrition with a local comparable capability. In other theatres of war or cyber and IW China enjoys an edge. While PLA Navy is larger with larger numbers of platforms but to effectively engage IN they have to come to the Indian Ocean where IN gets compensated by proximity. Most of China's energy and trade flows through the Malacca Straits which offers a counterbalance opportunity to India. The constraint on India has been of resources and political support which seems to have been rectified by the current govt. Nicobar has been developed with other bases in support of possible sea battles in the Indian Ocean and along the maritime trade routes between China and Middle East, Africa and Europe. OBOR if through would reduce China's dependence on sea routes and trade. They are also trying to get Northern Arctic route opened but that has its own peculiarities and complications.

PLA size remains bigger than IA, IN and IAF but locally in conflict areas we would be evenly matched with India capable of safeguarding our interests and inflicting impactful damage akin to LAC. India's focus rightly is on IN and IAF now. While India has limited interest in the Pacific Ocean but China has bigger concerns there with Japan changing its military doctrine and Australia getting nuc subs from US. For pursuing its ambition in Indo-Pacific region it has to contend with the QUAD now. The pandemic has done enough damage to the Chinese economy with companies seeking better avenues already and a declining global credibility.

Source: The Economist

Gp Capt TP Srivastava

I have been advocating basing one fighter squadron each at Port Blair and Car Nic for more than a decade. TSUNAMI put paid to the idea. Notwithstanding that I still maintain that basing fighters permanently will send a powerful message. Of course it will have operational, logistics and economic issues.

I know Raja Menon personally. He was CI (Navy) at DSSC, when I was on staff in Air wing. His write up is noteworthy except for last para where he says : CHINA CAN OVERWHELM US. He is out by miles. If China could overwhelm us, China would have retaliated fiercely after our response post Galwan. 19 meetings in past 30 odd months is testimony of our resolve to stand ground. I am surprised how such learned persons can make such statements.

My views in the link briefly but candidly touch on the issue.

Air Mshl Sumit Mukherjee        

Let me be the Devil’s Advocate

A couple of questions :-

  • Do trading tankers / vessels necessarily carry cargo for one country - or could it be for multiple sources ?
  • If it’s the latter would the Indian Armed Forces be in a position to stall / stop international trade ?
  • Would the cargo be insured ?
  • If so, do military manoeuvres over-ride international business processes ?
  • Do international trade vessels heading East fly only the Chinese flag ?
  • How does one identify which ships are to be embargoed ?

The build-up of a military base in the Great Andaman’s is laudable & long overdue (as Gp Capt Srivastava has emphasised). Will provide great strategic potential and  an overarching deterrence in the Eastern Indian Ocean and a  defining strong offensive posture against PLAN, should the need arise. Military to military is one story - blockading international trade may need a second look. Would value inputs from someone who is better versed in such diplomatic-military- business processes.

(Views expressed are the respondent's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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