Is China Militarizing a New Island in the Bay of Bengal?

Myanmar’s Great Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal is being transformed into a strategic military outpost. The Chatham House research institute reported that recent satellite imagery shows the tiny island is “experiencing a steady makeover, with telltale signs of military modernization ….” Bloomberg said on April 15 that India suspects China is behind the new developments.

Photos released by United States space technology firm Maxar Technologies in January show expansion of the Great Coco Island and some of its facilities. The island now hosts:

  • A 2,300-meter-long runway
  • At least two aircraft hangars
  • A new causeway connecting the main island to its southernmost point
  • New housing facilities
  • A radar station
  • And forest clearings, indicating more developments may be upcoming.

Security challenges: Full militarization of the island could pose a threat to the surrounding region, as China may try to use the archipelago to gather local security intelligence. Great Coco is located less than 35 miles north of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, from which India manages its Malacca Strait shipping lanes.

Myanmar’s junta has few friends left, and the few assets it has are increasingly dependent on Chinese capital to sustain. Great Coco is thus potentially a point of future leverage. 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.
—Chatham House

Is China helping? On April 15, Bloomberg reported that India has accused China in recent months of sending workers to Great Coco to help with the island’s development projects. Myanmar officials denied the allegations, but China has not responded to the accusations.

China is bound to be a natural suspect [for the island’s buildup], as it has both the intention and the wherewithal, and above all, it has secured access to the Coco Islands for the last 30 years.
—Swaran Singh, political science professor at the University of British Columbia

Shipping lanes: Over the past few years, China has been enhancing its efforts to dominate Asia’s shipping lanes. One way China is achieving this is by strengthening ties with coastal nations like Myanmar. The more influence China can gain over eastern coastal nations, the more potential China has to control areas like the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. These waters are pivotal routes in global commerce.

To learn more about how China is trying to take over these shipping lanes, read “Has China Bought the Solomon Islands?