A Chinese spy station in India’s strategic backyard?

China’s Yuan Wang 5 arrives at Chinese-run Hambantota International Port in Sri Lanka on Aug. 16, 2022. © AP

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

China appears to be building a military listening post on Great Coco Island, which sits between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea just north of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago where India has multiple naval and air force facilities and about 210 kilometers southwest of the mouth of Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River. 

Such a spy station could be used to carry out maritime surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence collection against India — and would highlight how U.S.-led sanctions are exacerbating regional-security challenges by pushing military-ruled Myanmar into China’s strategic lap.

Great Coco Island, measuring nearly 8 sq. kilometers and home to around 1,500 people, is one of three main islands in Myanmar’s Coco group, which also includes several small islets. The Coco Islands are separated from India’s North Andaman Island by the 20-km wide Coco Channel.

Beijing and Naypyitaw have each denied Chinese involvement in militarizing the Coco Islands. However, satellite images of an expanded airstrip, new aircraft hangars, a large pier and a radar station with a protective dome indicate that military infrastructure is rapidly going up on Great Coco, previously home to rudimentary infrastructure.

In recent months, India has confronted Myanmar with satellite imagery and other intelligence about assistance being provided by China for building military and dual-use facilities on Great Coco. Chinese military engineers and other personnel have been spotted there, Indian officials say.

A causeway is under construction at the southern end of Great Coco to connect it with a neighboring island, where the clearing of forested land suggests a further extension of facilities.

China has a record of issuing denials while expanding its strategic footprint through stealthy but incremental moves. It set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti while insisting it had no such plan.

A more striking example is how China turned its artificially created islands in the South China Sea into forward military bases soon after President Xi Jinping, standing with then-U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden in 2015, said, “China does not intend to pursue militarization.”

The U.S. believes that China is working to establish an international network of logistics and base infrastructure while concealing the terms of its agreements with host nations and the intended purpose of dual-use facilities that it finances, possibly including a naval outpost in Cambodia. Facilities under scrutiny include commercial ports in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, and Gwadar, Pakistan that have been taken over by Chinese state-owned companies.

China’s large spy ships, which serve as mobile listening and tracking platforms, are also playing a role. One such ship, the Yuan Wang 5, docked at Hambantota International Port last August despite Indian protests. The Yuan Wang 6 appeared in the Indian Ocean in December when New Delhi tested the Agni 5 intercontinental ballistic missile.

Myanmar’s junta, faced with crippling Western sanctions and foreign-backed armed resistance to its rule, has neither the capability nor the motivation to build sophisticated maritime reconnaissance and surveillance facilities on remote Great Coco on its own. At a time when it is struggling to retake control of large swaths of the country, the last thing it would do is build a spy station directed at friendly India, which has refused to join the American-led sanctions campaign.

The Indian military’s only tri-service command is headquartered at a base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands capital of Port Blair, seen here in 2014. © Reuters

But Beijing has the means, strategic impetus and ambition to set up facilities to monitor Indian activities, including naval communications and movements, satellite launches and tests of missiles which often splash down in the Bay of Bengal. China has long had interest in the Coco Islands, with talk of building a signals-intelligence facility there first surfacing in the early 1990s.

U.S.-led sanctions against Myanmar are now working to China’s advantage just as they did for nearly a quarter of a century before Obama’s historic Myanmar visit in 2012 heralded a change of policy. In response to the military’s February 2021 seizure of power, U.S. President Joe Biden promptly reimposed sanctions without heeding the history of how China had earlier become Myanmar’s dominant trading partner and investor.

The militarization of the Coco Islands will extend China’s growing penetration of Myanmar, which serves Beijing as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean, an important source of natural resources and a major market for its arms exports.

To bypass the narrow Malacca Strait between Peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Beijing has been investing heavily in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. The initiative includes a deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu and seeks to facilitate direct energy imports overland into Yunnan province.

In the past, the Coco Islands were administratively grouped with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but British colonial authorities split off the Cocos after the killing of a British lighthouse keeper by an Indian in 1877, reassigning responsibility to their outpost in Rangoon, now Yangon.

In 1942, the island groups were reunited by invading Japanese forces, who soon passed control to Indian nationalist forces fighting for independence from British rule. But upon independence in 1947, the Indian government did not assert control over the Cocos which then stayed with Burma as it too moved toward independence from the U.K. 

Spread across 750 km, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands give India commanding oversight over a key stretch of the main sea lanes that connect East Asia with Europe and the Middle East. The islands’ strategic importance in relation to the Malacca Strait explains why the Indian military’s only tri-service command is headquartered there.

China’s strategic foothold on the Coco Islands, if confirmed, will not only weaken this Indian advantage but also create a new maritime threat to India.