PORT BLAIR (India) • India and Japan are in talks to collaborate on upgrading civilian infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, an Indian archipelago seen as a critical asset to counter China's efforts to expand its maritime reach into the Indian Ocean.
The first project being discussed is a modest one - a 15-megawatt diesel power plant on South Andaman Island, as described in a proposal submitted late last month to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But the collaboration signals a significant policy shift for India, which has not previously accepted offers of foreign investment on the archipelago.
The Andaman and Nicobar islands are north-west of the Strait of Malacca, offering control of a so-called choke point that is one of China's greatest marine vulnerabilities.
It is also testimony to the unfolding relationship between India and Japan, which is also funding a US$744 million (S$1 billion) road-building project in the northeastern Indian border regions of Mizoram, Assam and Meghalaya.
Japan's marshalling of official development assistance in the region has drawn less attention than the effort that China calls "One Belt, One Road", a network of roads, railways and ports intended to link China to the rest of Asia and to Europe.
But it fits logically into the web of strategic projects taking shape as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enters into closer relationships with Japan, Australia and the United States, as well as regional powers like Vietnam, to counter China's growing influence.
A senior Indian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said China's project would be answered by "a more decentralised, local but organic response".
Japan's vision for contributions in the island chain goes far beyond the proposed power plant. The plan was submitted in Tokyo more than a year after Japan's ambassador made a visit to Port Blair on South Andaman Island and, in a meeting with the territory's top official, offered financing for "bridges and ports".
Mr Akio Isomata, minister for economic affairs in the Japanese Embassy, said the country's aid agency, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, could respond to only "formal requests" from the Indian government.
He added that 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 Asean or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
"We usually start with small projects and go bigger," he said.
He said construction of the power station could start in the next fiscal year, which begins in April.
The Andaman and Nicobar chain is made up of 572 islands, all but 34 of them uninhabited, stretching around 756km north to south.
Used as a penal colony by the British Empire, the island chain was occupied by Japan for three years during World War II, a period that older islanders recall with dread.
Jawaharlal Nehru, a former prime minister of India, secured the archipelago for his country in the hurried distribution of property that accompanied the British withdrawal from the subcontinent, beating out bids by Australia and Pakistan.
The islands' importance has increased along with China's naval expansion. The chain's location makes it an ideal base for tracking naval movements in the Strait of Malacca, a long, narrow funnel between Malaysia and Indonesia.
The strait provides passage for China's fuel imports from Africa and the Middle East, around 80 per cent of its total fuel imports.
NEW YORK TIMES