India Sets Up New Indian Ocean Naval Base

New Delhi — India has commissioned a new naval base on an island that lies off its southwest coast, as it looks to strengthen its presence in the Indian Ocean amid growing concerns about China’s expanding footprint in the strategic waters and a downturn in ties with the Maldives.

The base, called INS Jatayu, lies on Minicoy, the southernmost island in India’s Lakshadweep archipelago, which straddles key trade routes. It will be India’s second naval base on the archipelago and is closer to the Maldives.

After commissioning the base Wednesday, India’s navy chief, Admiral Hari Kumar, said it was crucial to recognize the pressing need for heightened surveillance amid prevailing geopolitical developments, according to Press Trust of India.   

The navy has said that the new base is “part of efforts to augment security infrastructure at the strategically important” islands.  

The announcement of the new naval base comes as the Maldives, under its new government, which took power last November, moves closer to New Delhi’s rival, China. 

The Maldivian defense ministry said Tuesday it has signed an agreement with China on provision of military assistance to the archipelago, but gave no details. The Maldives has also asked India to withdraw about 80 security personnel deployed on the archipelago to operate helicopters and other aircraft for surveillance and rescue missions.  

Analysts say that the new base on Minicoy Island will be a strategic counter to China, which New Delhi suspects will strengthen its military presence in the Maldives as those two countries move rapidly to build strategic ties.  

Over the past decade, concern has grown in New Delhi that infrastructure projects China has built in places like Hambantota port in neighboring Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan are bringing the rival Asian nation closer to India’s shores.    

“China’s forays into the Indian Ocean are a concern. By building such bases, India is looking to avoid a situation where China will acquire a dominance on the western side of the Indian Ocean,” said Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs.  

The new naval base was commissioned a week after Mauritius and India inaugurated an India-financed airstrip and a jetty on the tiny island of Agalega. Mauritius is an Indian Ocean outpost that lies close to Africa and has strategic significance. Mauritius’ prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth, denied reports that Agalega would serve as a military base but said the infrastructure will help modernize and strengthen security.   

Analysts say that the airstrip and jetty can be used by India to facilitate air and naval patrols in the southwest Indian Ocean, which is a transit point for key maritime routes. Oman has also given India access to its Duqm Port for logistics and support to facilitate its naval presence in the western Indian Ocean.   

“India wants to project power further and further away from Indian shores,” said Chaulia. “The long-term objective is to preempt the Chinese encroachments in the region, but we also must show our leadership in the region by protecting sea lanes of communication and countering threats such as piracy to merchant shipping.”  

Analysts point out that boosting the country’s naval capabilities has become a major focus for India due to China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. Relations between the Asian giants have worsened in recent years following a bitter military standoff along their Himalayan border. The Indian Ocean is a hugely strategic waterway for both countries, carrying their energy and other trade.  

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said on Tuesday that India, which had earlier focused on strengthening its land borders, is now “rebalancing its military resources” due to the “increased movement of our adversaries in the Indian Ocean region and the commercial importance of the region.” He was inaugurating a new building at the Naval War College in Goa. 

He said India will ensure that no one exercises hegemony in the Indian Ocean region.

“The navy is ensuring that no country, with its overwhelming economic and military power, is able to assert dominance over friendly countries or threaten their sovereignty,” Singh said.

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