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India Confronted Myanmar About Chinese Spy Post on Remote Island
Story by Sudhi Ranjan Sen, Khine Lin Kyaw and Philip J. Heijmans • 31m ago
(Bloomberg) — India has confronted Myanmar in recent months with intelligence showing that China is providing assistance in building a surveillance post on a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, according to Indian officials with knowledge of the matter.
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Indian government representatives at various levels have shared satellite imagery with Myanmar counterparts that they said depicted Chinese workers helping to construct what appears to be a listening post on the Coco Islands in the Indian Ocean, said the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive information. The workers were also seen extending an airstrip, they said.
In the meetings, representatives from Myanmar’s ruling junta denied any Chinese involvement and dismissed India’s concerns, the officials said. Still, India remains worried that the infrastructure will allow China to monitor communications from naval bases and track missiles from test sites on its eastern coastline, they said.
Major General Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council, called the allegation that China was building a spy facility in the Coco Islands “absurd.” He denied that the topic ever came up with Chinese or Indian officials, and said Myanmar would never allow access to foreign troops.
“Myanmar and India always have discussions at many levels, but there was no specific discussion on this issue,” he said. “The Indian government already knows perfectly well that only Myanmar security forces are based there, and they are doing defense activities for their own country.”
Chinese Spying Post? | India confronts Myanmar with satellite images
In a response to questions, Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said the country would take “necessary measures” to safeguard its interests.
“The government keeps a constant watch on all developments having a bearing on India’s security,” he said.
The Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, who met with some junta ministers earlier this week, didn’t respond to a request for comment. China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately reply to questions.
Military tensions between India and China have risen since 2020, when the worst fighting in decades erupted on their Himalayan border. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has also taken action to restrict Chinese apps in India and woo foreign investors looking to diversify away from the world’s second-biggest economy.
Reports that Myanmar allowed a Chinese signals intelligence facility on the archipelago have been circulating since the 1990s. The issue came into focus again last week after London-based policy research group Chatham House released a report speculating that Myanmar was militarizing the Coco Islands, with the intention of conducting maritime surveillance operations in the area.
India has assessed that China has no offensive military capabilities on the specific island — Great Coco Island — and Chinese research vessels used for snooping in the Indian Ocean haven’t docked there to avoid stoking suspicions, the officials said. They added that no Chinese personnel are stationed on the islands permanently, even though the workers show up often to help set up equipment.
India plans to continue pressing Myanmar’s junta to block China from operating the spy post, the officials said, but they assess that the generals have become more economically dependent on Beijing since a 2021 coup brought several rounds of sanctions from the US and Europe.
China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner, and has invested in ports and energy pipelines in the Southeast Asian nation as a way to bypass the Strait of Malacca, which would be a choke point in any wider Asian conflict.
India has a military facility in the Andaman and Nicobar Island group less than 60 kilometers (37.2 miles) away from the Coco Islands. The nation is ramping up its capacity in that island chain, the officials said, without giving more information.
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China’s surveillance activities came under the spotlight earlier this year when the US shot down an alleged spy balloon flying over its territory, a move that derailed plans for more engagement after US President Joe Biden met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Indonesia last November. The Pentagon said last week the balloon managed to gather intelligence from military sites, but the US was able to limit what it collected.
The US has warned of Chinese efforts to establish military installations in other parts of Asia. The Pentagon last year said that facilities at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base “will be the first PRC overseas base in the Indo-Pacific,” even though the government in Phnom Penh has repeatedly denied the accusation.
Beijing has also sought to gain a foothold in the Pacific. China Civil Engineering Construction Co. won a tender to redevelop an international port in the Solomon Islands, Reuters reported last month. Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa remarked at the time there were fears that “it might move into something else,” such as a dual-use military and civilian port.
Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesperson, said the US is concerned that China is “seeking to establish a global network of logistics and basing infrastructure that will allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances.”
While he didn’t comment on the alleged Chinese activities in the Coco Islands, Meiners said a particular concern is “the lack of transparency and clarity around the terms it negotiates with host countries and the intended purposes of these facilities.”