China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has said India is within its rights to set up a surveillance base in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands (ANI), playing down reports saying the base’s focus will be to monitor the Chinese navy’s increasing activities in the maritime region.

The base is located close to the Malacca Straits, a narrow strip vital to China — and to world sea trade — as its navy expands its maritime influence, including sending warships and submarines to the Indian Ocean region and to India’s neighbourhood.

The naval air station (NAS) Shibpur was commissioned as INS Kohassa by Indian navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, on Thursday.

Named after a White-Bellied Sea Eagle, endemic to islands, the Indian navy said the station operates “…Short Range Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters. These aircraft undertake EEZ (exclusive economic zones in the maritime area) surveillance, anti-poaching missions, search and rescue and humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions within the ANC (Andaman and Nicobar Command) area of responsibility”.

“The close proximity of Coco Islands (Myanmar) and wide expanse of Indian EEZ makes the base a very vital asset. The airfield provides sustained detached operations of Indian Navy, Indian Air Force, and Coast Guard aircraft,” the Indian navy said in a statement.

The PLA’s website said with the setting up of the base, “Some foreign media are provoking the situation, saying that India intends to ‘confront China’”.

“…the Andaman and Nicobar islands, adjacent to the Straits of Malacca, are overseas territories of Dominion of India and that it is a normal move for the Indian military to establish military bases there,” Ding Hao, deputy director of the Asian-African Military Affairs Office of the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences, said.

Ding added that China has always advocated enhancing strategic mutual trust with India at all levels, so it is not necessary to exaggerate Indian military use of their third naval base or Chinese Navy’s entering the Indian Ocean.

The “China threat” theory is repeatedly mentioned whenever Chinese ships appear in the Indian Ocean, the PLA expert said, adding that India regards the Indian Ocean as its own “backyard” and it is inevitable for India to have some negative views toward China.

Ding said that the main purpose of the Chinese Navy’s entering the Indian Ocean is to maintain the safety of the maritime channel.

“Given that pirates are very active and Chinese ships sailing to and from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia all need to go through the Indian Ocean, the aim of the Chinese Navy’s entering the Indian Ocean is not only for its own interests. Instead, it also aims to protect the safety of ships from all countries,” Ding said.

“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 metres to support fighter aircraft and longer-range reconnaissance aircraft,” navy spokesperson Captain DK Sharma told Reuters.