Chinese Whispers: The Great Coco Island Mystery
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Chinese Whispers: The Great Coco Island Mystery

By Andrew Selth JANUARY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.1

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The Great Coco Island facility was mentioned in the same context.


From these small beginnings, the story grew rapidly. At first, the Great Coco Island base was reported to have a powerful optical telescope, capable of sighting India’s Andaman Islands. Before long, the base was somehow transmogrified into a dedicated SIGINT collection station, operated by more than 70 Chinese military technicians, in partnership with the Burmese armed forces. By the mid-1990s, most newspapers and magazines were referring to a 50-meter antenna tower and a large radar facility o­n the island.


The Great Coco Island base has been described as “the most important Chinese electronic intelligence installation in Burma.” Its main purpose was reportedly to monitor regional military activities, especially air and naval movements in the Bay of Bengal, and to conduct surveillance of India’s strategically important tri-service facilities at Port Blair, o­n South Andaman Island. In a later elaboration of this theme, commentators suggested that the base was also equipped to analyze telemetry from Indian ballistic missile test flights.


Few of these reports gave sources to support their claims, other than quoting other newspaper stories. o­ne or two authors, however, cited unnamed Western intelligence contacts. In o­ne article, there was even a reference to satellite imagery, implying that at least o­ne great power had confirmed the existence of the Chinese base, using national technical means. A prominent Indian analyst also claimed that there was “a fair amount of irrefutable evidence” about the Great Coco Island site, derived from human and signals intelligence.


As these reports proliferated, they were picked up by respected commentators and academics, and given fresh life in serious studies of the regional strategic environment. The Great Coco Island and Hainggyi Island bases were cited as evidence that Burma had become a client state of China. Other analysts saw these bases as proof of China’s expansionist designs in the Indian Ocean region.

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