New Delhi: Satellite images have captured a spurt in construction activity on Myanmar’s Coco Island which could become a hub to mount surveillance of India’s military activities on the nearby Andamans, an article published by a UK think-tank warned.
A report in the monthly magazine of London-based Chatham House said that the latest images indicate that Myanmar “may soon be intending to conduct maritime surveillance operations from Great Coco Island, the largest in an isolated archipelago that lies just 55 kilometres north of India’s strategic Andaman and Nicobar Islands”.
It was also observed that although Great Coco Island had been a subject of conspiracy theories for many years, it now has the potential to be a legitimate cause for concern.
While India has good relations with Myanmar, the article titled “Is Myanmar building a spy base in the Great coco island” rang alarm bells that Beijing’s close ties with Nyay PYi Taw could give it access to sensitive information.
“Given China’s well-established intelligence practices, local intelligence from Great Coco could find its way, either through espionage or consent, to Shanghai,” said the article, authored by the Open Source intelligence expert Damien Symon and Chatham House’s John Pollock.
The article is based on satellite photos dated January 2023 by Maxar Technologies. According to the authors, the images show two new hangars, a new causeway, and a probable accommodation block, all near the runway and radar station at Great Coco island, the largest island in the archipelago.
Further, new images dating back to late March show evidence of land-clearing efforts on the southern tip of the island, which indicate the likelihood of more construction work. An “expanded airbase on Great Coco opens the possibility that India may soon have to contend with Tatmadaw eyes watching the movements of its warships”.
Hosting the only tri-service command of the Indian military, the Andaman and Nicobar islands are a highly strategic piece of real estate, located on important sea lanes in the Indian ocean. As the article also noted, the Andaman and Nicobar islands provide “India’s Eastern Fleet strategic depth in the Bay of Bengal and command approaches to the Strait of Malacca”
There have been media reports of regular sojourns by Chinese submarines in the region for monitoring purposes. The furore of the Chinese surveillance balloon over the United States led to resurfacing of old photos of a similar balloon over Port Blair in January 2022.
With Great Coco island lying just 55 kilometres north of Andaman and Nicobar island, it had always been perceived to be an ideal base to spy on Indian military activity.
Earlier, the Coco Islands were perceived as a direct listening post of China, but as the authors said, there is little evidence for that.
However, the increased construction activity on the island could mean that a rather “non-existent Chinese intelligence post, the Bay of Bengal may soon have to contend with an airbase hosting Myanmar’s air force”.
While Myanmar is not a strategic threat to India, the authors argue that the Junta’s diplomatic isolation and dependence on China for its economic survival could mean that it was vulnerable to any arm-twisting from Beijing.
“If China were to further apply pressure to the Tatmadaw, leveraging naval intelligence acquired from surveillance flights from Great Coco for desperately needed economic investment, it would give Beijing a key regional advantage over New Delhi,” said the report.
India’s close cooperation with the Quad countries would also tempt Beijing to increase its intelligence network in the Indian ocean.
“Were Myanmar to get the base fully established, surveillance flights could track movements to and from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Given China’s well-established intelligence practices, local intelligence from Great Coco could find its way, either through espionage or consent, to Shanghai,” said the article.