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Military construction in Myanmar’s Coco Island suspected to be Chinese intel gathering facility

Military construction in Myanmar’s Coco Island suspected to be Chinese intel gathering facility

The developments in Myanmar's remote Coco Island located close to Andaman and Nicobar Islands have given rise to scepticism about China constructing an intelligence facility.

India may soon face a new airbase close by in a country increasingly tied to Beijing, said a report.

The small and remote island in the Bay of Bengal has been at the centre of interest for China since the 1990s where it reportedly made an intelligence facility, The Guardian quoted thinktank Chatham House as saying.

Satellite images of the island taken in January this year show signs of military modernisation, a newly expanded 2,300-metre runway, a radar station, two new hangars, what appears to be an accommodation block, and a new causeway linking to a smaller island according to the report by Chatham House.

Moreover, new images from March show evidence of land-clearing efforts on the southern tip of the island indicating the likelihood of more construction work.

Myanmar's Great Coco is relatively small at around 11 km in length. However, its location is strategically important. It is not only close to the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, but also lies in proximity to Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which host Indian navy and air force bases.

Signs of construction have provoked concern that China -- which Myanmar has grown increasingly dependent on after the February 2021 coup -- could stand to gain from intelligence gathered there, either through espionage or intelligence sharing.

Delhi has reportedly been monitoring developments closely. It recently confronted Myanmar with intelligence showing that Beijing was providing assistance in building a surveillance post on the island, according to Bloomberg.

China dismissed the claims. Authors of the Chatham House report said the Maxar images did not show any specific evidence of Chinese activity on Great Coco.

However, since the coup, Myanmar's military has sought closer ties with Beijing, backing its claim to Taiwan and announcing its support for China's "global security initiative".

"Myanmar is desperate, it's cash-strapped," said Htwe Htwe Thein, associate professor at Curtin University,

"Investment from Beijing is economically helpful -- and also on the world stage (Myanmar can flaunt) that such an economic giant and neighbour is still their friend."

"With Myanmar reliant on China for international support and economic development, it is extremely likely that the army would share intelligence with Beijing, and support China's strategic initiatives," said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director at the United States Institute of Peace.

The construction on Great Coco was provocative, he said, adding that it "presents a significant challenge to regional security, and will likely generate significant tensions between China and India in the Bay of Bengal", the Guardian reported.

Analysts believe Myanmar's military is likely seeking to play India and China off against one another in return for greater economic and diplomatic support.

Great Coco could be used as leverage in negotiations with Delhi, said Damien Symon of the Intel Lab, who co-authored the Chatham House report, adding that the Myanmar military was "well aware of Indian fears relating to Chinese surveillance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands".

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