Conspiracy theorists have long speculated on the Chinese presence on Myanmar’s Coco Islands, which are barely 40 kms away from Landfall Islands of India’s Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands.
Rumours of lease of these remote Coco Islands to China by the Junta-ruled Myanmar in 1994 have been explicitly and routinely denied by both Myanmar and China. Similarly, murmurs of a plausible SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) station to monitor Indian naval activity, snoop on the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) facility at Sriharikota or keep a hawk eye on the ‘choke point’ of Malacca Straits have been dismissed by senior Indian military functionaries, periodically.
While there has been some construction activity on the islands, the then Commander-inChief of Andaman and Nicobar Tri-Services Command in 2014 had clarified, “China has been developing a runway for civilian purposes. There are no reports of the presence of Chinese per se. The situation is not alarming.” Yet a phantom like fear persists and it is not without reason, given two important reasons i.e., China’s proclivity and Myanmar’s desperation.
China’s patent expansionism to co-opt neighbouring countries into the ‘Sinosphere’ (willingly or unwillingly) has not spared its intent or efforts in Myanmar. While the ‘pariahised’ status of Myanmar under the junta boots naturally drove the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) towards the willing arms of Beijing, the junta had always remained cautiously friendly with Beijing to ensure it did not become a vassalized status.
The junta (prior to and after the Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy government) has not shied away from counter-balancing China’s influence by engaging with India, simultaneously.
Myanmar has taken strategic and sensitive support from both India and China, without allowing itself to be overindexed to any one side. Therefore, the much-conjectured Sittwe port in Myanmar, which was once believed to be part of China’s ‘String of Pearls’ military-commercial (dual purpose) network along the sensitive Chinese sea lines of communication, was eventually made by India.
The healthy and unsaid equation besetting the Tatmadaw and Delhi could be gauged by its ‘facilitation’ of ‘Operation Hot Pursuit’ (cross border strike by Indian Army on insurgent camps on Myanmar’s side) in 2015, despite official downplaying. But the 2021 coup d’état that deposed the democratically elected NLD government and brought back the Tatmadaw resulted in complicated dynamics as the regime was desperate to seek international legitimization. China stepped in as the first and foremost defender by refusing to criticise the takeover (India did so initially) and offered support to the internationally shunned regime.
Later India too offered mealy-mouthed statements that seemed to indicate its willingness to engage and accept the Junta regime, but China had already taken the pole position. India was caught in the awkward trap of having to raise concerns on democracy (even though the democratically elected NLD government had kept China on the right side too) and did not commit its resources to the beleaguered Myanmar.
China had no such compunctions or hesitations. China blocked the U.N. Security Council statement condemning the coup. Earlier, the Myanmar Navy was operating with a singular refitted submarine from India, but after the 2021 coup, it was given an additional refurbished Chinese submarine, in a sign of the times.
Soon thereafter pace picked up on crucial projects like the power plant in Kyaukphyu, Mee Ling Gyaing LNG terminal in Ayeyarwady Region, deep-sea port and SEZ (with an accompanying 135 MW gas-fired power plant), and even the ambitious New Yangon Development City project. While these are indeed significant in the scheme of Myanmar’s limited options, not everyone is excited with the Chinese presence.
Inevitability of ‘debt-traps’ with Chinese largesse is well understood, as is carte blanche support of the unpopular junta regime. Many are protesting the ‘cost’ of Chinese investment, for example the Chinese rare earth mining project in Kachin State, communities around Myitsone Dam etc. Most importantly, deep down even the Tatwadaw is extremely wary of the powerful Chinasupported insurgent group, United Wa State Army (numbering 25,000 insurgents), which has called a tactical truce at the behest of Beijing, but can be used as a lever to up the ante should the Chinese want to extract their pound of flesh.
All of this makes the Chinese a source of calibrated and cautious invocation, one that needs to be kept in check and not allowed to spiral out of control. Above all, Tatmadaw knows that the only viable counter to Chinese arm-twisting is India, and therefore the need to ensure that Delhi’s sensitivities are respected.
Under no circumstances will Tatmadaw put all their eggs in the Chinese basket and with that backdrop, the Coco Islands will realistically not be on the platter for easy picking. In today’s era of satellite imagery and other sophisticated tracking mechanisms, the utility of a hypothetical Chinese radar at Coco Islands is extremely limited. The fact that these islands are constrained by their inherent size, hydrographic wherewithal, and distance from the muchbandied Malacca Straits (over 750 miles), makes them more a phantasmagoric bogey than a plausible threat.
However, China has an institutionalised policy of probing frontiers and ‘opening’ new frontiers in pursuance of its expansionist, distractive and provocative strategy that has historically confounded its neighbours in the South China Sea rim and along other borders. Hence, it would not be beyond China to make a hard pitch for Coco Islands to unsettle and provoke India.
A lot will depend on how India engages Myanmar to secure its own interests and keep the Chinese at bay. Meanwhile China plays a high-stakes game which is prone to go belly-up whenever circumstances (read regime) change as in Sri Lanka and the Maldives and this is a development that cannot be ruled out considering the groundswell against the Junta.
Lastly China will also consider its patronage of the junta by counter-weighing consequences of offending the more significant Asean countries that have not warmed up to Myanmar ~ therefore the subtle snub by the Chinese by refusing to participate in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Summit in Myanmar, recently. These dynamics indicate that for the Chinese to usurp Coco Islands is highly unlikely, yet.
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)