PacNet #40 – Decoding the infrastructure development on Myanmar’s Coco Islands

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Satellite imagery released by Maxar Technologies in January 2023, revealing new construction on Myanmar’s Great Coco Island, has raised concerns and questions. The imagery discloses an extended airport runway and two new widened hangars next to it. A report from Chatham House Policy Institute says that the runway seems freshly lengthened to 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) from 1,300 meters 10 years ago, and the new hangars enlarged by approximately 40 meters. The extensive nature of this development provokes suspicions as to whether the infrastructure under construction is a Chinese espionage base for its military expansion into the Indian Ocean.

Why China?

China has been a friend to the Myanmar military since the late 1980s. Even when Myanmar was isolated during the junta’s rule in the 1990s and 2000s, China remained a supportive partner of the regime. Despite the harmonious relations with the civilian government during the democratic transition of 2011-2020, China has always wanted to keep closer ties with the Myanmar military for economic and security reasons. The 2021 coup has strengthened the Myanmar military’s relationship with China and increased Beijing’s sway over the country. The presence of a Chinese intelligence base on the Coco Islands, long rumored among the international security community, had little to no evidence before the satellite imagery’s release.

Given the prevailing instability across the country, the Myanmar military cannot carry out the ongoing construction on the Great Coco Island without China; only the latter has both the willingness and capability to develop an airport on the remote island.

Why would China secretly—not publicly—develop such infrastructure? What is the project’s goal, in the short or long term?

While not part of the Belt and Road Initiative, the infrastructure development taking place on the Coco Islands reminds of other projects under the BRI in other parts of the world, as these projects often generate controversy and criticism. Specifically, rumors have swirled that these projects serve China’s regional military and security objectives, rather than the needs of the communities they take place in.

For instance, in 2018 and 2019, Koh Kong province in Cambodia underwent the Dara Sakor Airport Development project funded by China’s Union Development Group. The extreme difficulty of attracting visitors to Koh Kong Beachside resort makes the development of an international airport an illogical decision. Dara Sakor, deviating from the initial plan to develop an international airport for commercial airliners, developed a long runway (10,500 feet) with a “tight turning bay” favored by jet fighters. The Dara Sakor investment zone covers 20% of Cambodia’s coastline and lies close to the Ream Naval Base, granted to China for 30 years in return for the funding required to renovate the naval base. Although the developer insisted that the airport will be for civilian use, international observers immediately criticized the project as benefitting Beijing’s military strategy.

Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, another China-sponsored infrastructure project, also raised security concerns. In 2017, Sri Lanka leased a 70% stake in the port to China Merchants Ports Holding Company Limited (CM Port) for 99 years under a concession agreement signed by Colombo’s cabinet of ministers, keeping the remaining 30% under Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Although the CM Port and SLPA ostensibly jointly manage the port’s commercial operations, observers still consider the port a Chinese debt trap. As with Dara Sakor, the Hambantota port is poorly connected to the rest of the country, prompting questions as to its purpose. Some analysts believe China could potentially use the Hambantota Port as a pretext to establish a security base due to its strategic location for the import of energy from the Middle East.

Why Coco Islands?

As with the projects above, the Coco Islands’ remote location, poorly connected to the rest of the country, prompts questions as to whether its airport construction will eventually provide critical infrastructure for China, facilitating future military expansion. The Islands are remote from and poorly connected to the rest of the country. This seems consistent, however, with the PLA’s naval base expansion in Djibouti and China’s current aspiration to set up a permanent military base in Equatorial Guinea.

China considers the Atlantic Ocean important for its exports and the Indian Ocean crucial for its energy and raw material requirements. China has and will continue to undertake infrastructure projects along the maritime route as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The suspicion and concerns over the China-developed infrastructure mainly arise from the lack of transparency and mysterious nature of the relationship, given the previously mentioned cases of BRI construction in corrupt states.

The Coco Islands’ undisclosed construction, along with other infrastructure ventures in its vicinity, has revived the “String of Pearls” Theory, with the Coco Islands as “beads” in China’s strategy to expand its military presence. According to this theory, China will persist in establishing its economic and military footholds in or around the Indian Ocean by investing in dual-use infrastructure development projects. The Maldives, Seychelles, and Madagascar can expect similar projects sooner or later. However, it will remain crucial to observe how China handles tensions in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, key BRI infrastructure on China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

All in all, the ongoing construction of an airport on the Great Coco Island suggests China’s unwavering determination to broaden its sphere of influence. As Myanmar faces isolation, China sees an opportunity. If it wishes to ease such doubts and suspicions, China should establish a mechanism for sustainable transparency to demonstrate its sincere and responsible economic cooperation. Without transparency, China will find it hard to justify the development of infrastructure of such questionable use.

Furthermore, other major powers, namely the United States, European Union, and possibly India, should enhance their active engagement in the Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean subregions through political discussion and/or security cooperation with ASEAN member states to appropriately respond to the expanding influence of China. It is crucial to explore constructive measures with Myanmar’s neighbors that promote a balanced regional environment, foster ASEAN’s centrality, and ensure collective stability and prosperity.

Shwe Yee Oo ([email protected]) is Resident Nonproliferation Fellow at Pacific Forum.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping in front of PRC and Myanmar’s flags in 2019 by Fred Dufour of Reuters. 

PacNet #33 – Myanmar’s Coco Islands: A concern not to be ignored

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The India-Myanmar relationship is rooted in shared history, culture, and religious values. India and Myanmar share a 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) land and maritime border in the Bay of Bengal, adding more significance to the bilateral relations. Furthermore, towns by the Myanmar-India border and cities such as Yangon and Naypyidaw house a large Indian diaspora of roughly 2.5 million.

With India’s active outreach to neighbouring countries with its “Neighbourhood First’ and “Act East” policies, India’s northeastern states are connected to Southeast Asia through Myanmar. As the only ASEAN country sharing a land border with India, Myanmar is a bridge between India and ASEAN.

The strategic importance of Myanmar—with over 1,200 miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, proximity to the western entrance of the Malacca Strait, and a direct linkage to the Indian Ocean—in maintaining security and stability in the wider Indo-Pacific region is clear to more than just India. In the colonial era, the Japanese imperial forces and the army of the British Empire repeatedly clashed over the control of Burma for the same strategic reasons. Fast forward to 2023 and the “Malacca Dilemma” persists. The People’s Republic of China considers Myanmar a strategically important country in Southeast Asia for hegemonic ambitions in the region.

In January 2023, Maxar Technologies released satellite imagery revealing renewed levels of infrastructure and construction activities on the Great Coco Island. The Coco Islands archipelago lies less than 50 miles north of Andaman and Nicobar Islands—home to India’s first tri-service command. While there has been speculation of Chinese activity in the region since the 1990s, Maxar’s satellite imagery lends credence to this suspicion, and Chatham House in March 2023 showed satellite images of two new hangars, a new causeway, and an accommodation bloc. This has caused much concern, as it showed a newly expanded 7,500-foot runway and a radar station on the island.

Beijing, in its effort to establish an alternative route to the Indian Ocean, is leveraging the global isolation/ostracization of the Burmese junta in Myanmar by Western nations. Since the February 2021 Coup, Myanmar has returned to an era of isolation—ASEAN has drafted a Five-Point Consensus to navigate the return of normalcy in Myanmar, though to not much benefit. The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on Myanmar, which increases Naypyitaw’s dependence on Beijing.

However, Beijing’s influence in Myanmar is not new. Even under democratic rule, Myanmar was one of the early recipients of Chinese aid under the Belt and Road Initiative. China-Myanmar cooperation was not limited to civilian infrastructure development. Military and strategic installations such the construction of the SIGINT station had begun in the 1990s with the placing of an antenna tower, radar sites, and other electronic facilities forming a comprehensive SIGINT collection facility. Beijing has slowly and steadily established more facilities, not just on the Great Coco Island, but also SIGINT listening stations in the Andaman Sea at Manaung, Hainggyi, and Zadetkyi in Myanmar. Through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has invested in infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, and railway lines, providing it access to the Indian Ocean without having to go through the Malacca Strait.

Cognizant of the strategic significance of these developments, the Indian government has raised the issue bilaterally with Myanmar. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs official spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, said that “India will take all necessary steps to safeguard its interests” and that the government “keeps a constant watch on all developments having a bearing on India’s security.”

New construction activities on the island, not limited to naval ports and the possibility of a new airbase, pose challenges to India. Military leaders have long warned the possibility of Chinese infrastructure development on the island. As far back as 2005, junta leaders invited Indian defense officials to tour the island and lay to rest any concerns of Chinese involvement.  Upon the visit, the then-Chief of Indian Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash categorically dismissed concerns of military infrastructure development on the island.

Recent developments refute this and, importantly, this coastline provides direct access to the Indian Ocean, giving China an enormous advantage over major competitors, including India. If this comes to fruition, Beijing will be able to control both the eastern part of Malacca Strait via its artificial islands in the South China Sea and the western part through CMEC and Coco Islands in Myanmar. For nations that seek to maintain a safe and secure Indo-Pacific, China’s infrastructure development on the Coco Islands adds a new dimension to this challenge.

Despite US and European sanctions, New Delhi has joined Tokyo, Moscow and Beijing in maintaining diplomatic relations with the military government in Myanmar. The Chinese activities on the Coco Islands raise questions about the benefits of that engagement for New Delhi. The military leadership in Naypyidaw has counted primarily on neighbouring states—India, China, and Japan and Russia—to keep its economy afloat. It may be time for the military leadership to rethink its support for Chinese infrastructure development on the islands, given that it cannot afford to lose more partners.

Shristi Pukhrem ([email protected]) is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. The views expressed are personal.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Myanmar’s military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Prime Minister Narendra Modi by PIB.

PacNet #38 – Why America opposes the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?—A second look

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As US-China relations decline to their worst state in over 50 years, it’s important that both sides understand fully the importance of their respective differences. US opposition to Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is commonly understood in China and elsewhere as a competition between the two powers for economic advantage and accompanying international influence. This line of assessment is valid as far as it goes but gives little attention to a wide range of factors in the BRI—and related Chinese statecraft employed in support of the initiative—that Americans deem seriously objectionable.

Some of these factors concern newly prominent unconventional Chinese actions and levers of influence abroad that were heretofore disguised, hidden, denied, or otherwise neglected or unappreciated by foreign specialists assessing Chinese foreign relations. The unconventional Chinese actions and levers of influence have been featured in investigations carried out by US and other government agencies and respected US and foreign think tanks. What the investigations show is that the BRI, despite Chinese rhetoric to the contrary, is part of a wide-ranging effort by the Chinese government to undermine the many interests of the United States and its allies and partners who stand in the way of China’s determined international ascendance, under the rubric of the BRI and other means.

Those interests include a) the rule of law; b) the rights of small nations seeking to avoid dominance in contested issues with large nations; c) transparent, free, and fair economic dealings in line with accountable governance; and d) popular political rights, religious freedom, and non-discrimination against minorities.

BRI challenges America

Legitimating China’s growth model, Huawei expansion—Beijing has succeeded in having the BRI widely endorsed by, among others, the UN secretary general, playing a prominent role in the two China-hosted international forums on the BRI in 2017 and 2019, and by Italy becoming the first of the G7 countries to join BRI in 2019. Meanwhile, the most important Chinese company associated with the BRI, Huawei, is advancing from a strong base among developed countries, seeking a leading global position.

Such endorsements of the BRI and advancement of Huawei are major problems for Americans who target China’s unfair economic practices. They aver that Beijing’s surplus capital for financing BRI deals has come as a result of China’s neo-mercantilist practices, marking the latest stage in a three-decade long effort using state-directed development polices which plunder foreign intellectual property rights and undermine international competitors. The profits flow into efforts to achieve dominance in major world industries, build military power, and support the BRI in order to secure China’s dominance in Asia and world leadership. They support companies like Huawei in their attempt to dominate international communications enterprises.

Broader international endorsement of the BRI and the expansion of Huawei would legitimate the longstanding negative Chinese economic practices. They would make it even harder for the United States to counter the many negative features of Chinese practices for US interests in the existing international economic order. That order is viewed as under serious threat coming from determined Chinese efforts to weaken and undermine restrictions on the egregiously mercantilist state-capitalism prevalent in China today.

BRI and corruption—The BRI is not a multilateral organization. Its basis is bilateral agreements between China—and Chinese firms—with various countries and their firms. These agreements are not transparent. Corruption is a serious problem in China, but it’s even worse in many developing countries. Chinese firms and supporting Chinese government representatives repeatedly work effectively with corrupt foreign leaders seeking mutual advantage, which comes at the expense of the country’s broad national interest.

A comprehensive study by the Asia Society of China’s BRI in Southeast Asia recalled the extraordinary scale of corruption in the Razak government in Malaysia making deals with enormous payoffs in very expensive Chinese projects in the country. It said the Malaysian case was an exception only in that corrupt practices were exposed, concluding “the pervasive use of bribery, cost padding, and kickbacks was also indicated in numerous other BRI projects in the region.” Studies by the International Republican Institute, the Center for American Progress, the Center for New American Security, the German Marshall Fund and many others came to the same conclusion in other parts of the world. Such practices undermine the international status quo, which have featured strong US-led efforts to reduce corrupt practices which weaken good governance and disadvantage the public interest.

The BRI supports authoritarian rule—Many corrupt cases in the BRI involve Chinese dealmakers and authoritarian “strong man” leaders seeking to advance authoritarian rule. Examples included Cambodia, Venezuela, many states in Central Asia and the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Montenegro, and arguably Serbia, the Maldives, Ecuador, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Such practices run against US interests in good governance with accountability to the people of the country. They promote an alternative international order that accommodates leaders who suppress the rights of their people for the sake of maintaining their power.

Authoritarian rulers often are keen on Huawei, Chinese communications and surveillance technologies and related equipment for use in controlling their populations. Some also adopt Chinese journalistic practices that serve to influence their people to support authoritarian rule. China in turn benefits from the sales, and Chinese representatives also gain much greater access to and a degree of control over the communications, surveillance, and media of the recipient country. The situation provides opportunities for Chinese espionage.

BRI fosters dependency, leverage and control—Beijing commonly uses BRI agreements to build economic dependence. The Chinese agreements often result in unsustainable borrowing. Debtor countries are more accommodating regarding Chinese demands for equity (e.g., land, ports, and airfields) and/or Chinese requests for access to military facilities or other favors. Salient examples are Cambodia, Djibouti, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Laos, Malaysia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela. The disadvantages for the United States are that Chinese actions foster a world order at odds with prevailing rules, with China free to manipulate vulnerable states for its own advantage, leading to economic stalling of these countries that will require costly intervention by existing international economic institutions.

Other Chinese BRI leverage disadvantageous for the United States comes as BRI participant states often rely heavily on trade with China. They are well-aware they need to defer to China on sensitive issues given Beijing’s long record of putting aside or manipulating WTO norms to use trade dependence as leverage in order to compel the country to meet China’s demands on a variety of policy issues. Meanwhile, Huawei and other firms’ expensive and complicated communications and surveillance systems along with Chinese provided hydro-electric dams and port operations cause recipient countries to rely ever more on Chinese businesses for management and maintenance. Such connections make the Chinese ties difficult and expensive to replace by another provider, adding to reasons for recipient states to defer to China on sensitive issues.


The US opposition to the BRI reflects a substantial set of differences with China, not just an issue of economic competition. Yet, there is no easy answer for the United States in countering the Chinese challenges as Beijing’s BRI advances its sway and finds welcome, notably from many authoritarian and/or corruptible leaders.

Robert Sutter ([email protected]) is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, USA. His most recent book is The United States and Asia: Regional Dynamics and Twenty-First Century Relations: Second Edition (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2020).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.