Major military upgrades on a group of Myanmar islands near a strategic Indian archipelago as revealed by satellite images may be the work of China and could only be aimed at India, media reports say.
Experts quoted in the South China Morning Post said China alone has the resources and motivation to build the military installations, after a British think tank unveiled major upgrades around the islands.
The London-based policy institute Chatham House last month released a report that assessed new satellite images of the Coco Islands in a Bay of Bengal zone 55 km north of Andaman and Nicobar Islands where New Delhi has air and naval bases.
The images reveal that Myanmar’s islands have over the years seen “a steady makeover, with tell-tale signs of military modernisation and facilities to support aircraft”, said the report.
Both China, which fought a war with India in 1962 and continues to claim Indian territory, and Myanmar denied the report.
The Chinese foreign ministry routinely called it “sheer nonsense”. Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council denied that China was building the facility.
The British report said a major extension of the island’s runway in the past decade was among the most visible changes in the area.
The satellite pictures, taken in January by US a space technology firm, also showed new hangars, a radar station and a large pier. A causeway appeared to be under construction in the southern part of Great Coco where 1,500 people live.
Troy Lee-Brown at the University of Western Australia Defence and Security Institute was quoted as saying that the images suggested “a fairly significant build-up in infrastructure development” from “what used to be a pretty rudimentary radar station”.
Swaran Singh, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said Myanmar had neither the motivation nor the financial or technical capabilities to launch infrastructure projects on the Coco Islands.
“China is bound to be a natural suspect as it has both the intention and the wherewithal,” he added.
Beijing has acquired footholds around the Indian Ocean in recent years, with Chinese companies taking control of commercial ports in cash-strapped Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Singh said China’s aim with the installations would likely be to monitor India’s army, navy and air force, including major missile testing sites.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to the Indian armed forces’ first and only tri-service theatre, established around 2001. The archipelago stretches over some 750 km in the Bay of Bengal, giving India commanding oversight over the so-called sea lines of communication.
Lee-Brown said even if the recent construction work was entirely driven by Myanmar, there would still be concerns in India due to the strategic importance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Timothy Heath, an international defence researcher at the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, said if China’s armed forces ever operated from Myanmar’s islands, they could carry out surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence collection along the coast and possibly harass Indian ships.
At the same time, he warned that if there was a full-scale war, Chinese aircraft and ships based near Coco Islands would be “easily wiped out” by the Indian military on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.