By Sanjeev Miglani
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's navy will open a third air base in the far-off Andaman and Nicobar islands on Thursday to beef up surveillance of Chinese ships and submarines entering the Indian Ocean through the nearby Malacca Straits, military officials and experts said.
New Delhi has grown concerned over the presence of China's bigger navy in its neighborhood and the network of commercial ports it is building in an arc stretching from Sri Lanka to Pakistan that India fears could become naval outposts.
The Indian military has seized upon the Andamans that lie near the entrance to the Malacca Straits to counter the Chinese challenge, deploying ships and aircraft since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014 promising a more muscular policy.
Indian navy chief admiral Sunil Lanba will commission the new base, called INS Kohassa, about 300 km (180 miles) north of the archipelago’s capital, Port Blair, the navy said in a statement.
The facility, the third in the islands, will have a 1,000-metre runway for helicopters and Dornier surveillance aircraft. But eventually the plan is for the runway to be extended to 3,000 meters to support fighter aircraft and longer-range reconnaissance aircraft, navy spokesman Captain D.K. Sharma said.
About 1,20,000 ships pass through the Indian Ocean each year and nearly 70,000 of them pass through the Malacca Strait.
"The underlying thing is the expanding Chinese presence. If we have to really monitor Chinese presence, we need to be adequately equipped in the Andaman islands," said former navy commodore Anil Jai Singh.
"If you have air bases you can cover a larger area," he said, adding he expected the navy to permanently deploy more ships to the islands in the next phase of the buildup.
A Chinese submarine docked in Sri Lanka's Colombo port in 2014 that drew such alarm in New Delhi that Modi's government raised the issue with the Sri Lankan authorities.
Both India and China have been locked in a contest for influence, with New Delhi trying to push back against Beijing's expansive diplomacy in the region.
This week, Indian defense officials are due to hold talks with the defense minister of the Maldives, Mariya Ahmed Didi, where New Delhi is seeking to repair ties after the ouster of its pro-China leader in a presidential election last year.
(Additional reporting by Sanjib Kumar Roy in PORT BLAIR; Editing by Nick Macfie)