Japan has agreed to collaborate with India on upgrading civilian infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian archipelago considered as a valuable asset, to counter China’s efforts to expand its maritime reach into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Currently, New Delhi and Tokyo prepare a plan in this regard.

According to sources close to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Japan will help India in setting up a 15MW diesel power plant on South Andaman Island. A senior ministry official has said that India sent a proposal regarding the power plant to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs a couple of months ago.

The official has admitted that the collaboration signals a major policy shift for India, as the South Asian country did not allow foreigners to invest on the archipelago in the past. The geographical location of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, situated in northwest of the Strait of Malacca, prompted India to change its policy. India is well aware of the fact that Andaman and Nicobar Islands offer control of a so-called choke point – one of China’s greatest marine vulnerabilities.

The changing India-Japan relationships, too, have encouraged New Delhi to involve Tokyo in various infrastructure projects. Earlier, Japan funded a USD 744 million road building project in north-eastern Indian provinces of Mizoram, Assam and Meghalaya.

Foreign policy experts opine that Japan and other countries have agreed to help India in implementing various development projects mainly to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Since becoming Prime Minister in May 2014, Narendra Modi has been trying hard to enter into closer relationships not only with Japan, Australia and the US, but also with regional powers, like Vietnam.

The senior External Affairs Ministry official, who wished to remain anonymous, stressed that India is interested in developing its “frontier” regions with foreign help. He told the media that Japanese Ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatsu recently visited Port Blair and offered financing for “bridges and ports” after holding talks with local officials. He quoted Minister (Economic and Development) at the Embassy of Japan Akio Isomata as saying: “Japan would consider any other requests on the Andaman and Nicobar chain or elsewhere and was eager to use official development assistance to enhance India’s connectivity with countries that are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation.” “We usually start with small projects and go bigger,” added Isomata.

The importance of Andaman and Nicobar chain, made up of 572 islands stretching around 470 miles north to south, has increased along with China’s naval expansion. Considering the chain’s location, India has decided to make it a base for tracking naval movements in the Strait of Malacca that provides passage for China’s fuel imports from Africa and West Asia.

Jeff M Smith, the author of ‘Cold Peace’ – a book on the Sino-Indian rivalry, is not at all surprised by the Indo-Japanese venture in Andaman. “Almost every year, I see some senior Indian military official say we have major, major plans in store for the Andamans, and you’re going to see them soon. India has taken serious note of the presence of Chinese submarines in the IOR in recent years,” stressed Smith.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]