Chinese Whispers: The Great Coco Island Mystery
covering burma and southeast asia
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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 most likely explanation for India’s remarkable about-face, however, is that there never was a Chinese SIGINT station there and most of the claims made since 1992 were completely baseless. If so, the question must be asked how this myth came to take such a firm grip o­n the imagination of so many journalists, scholars and government officials.

 

There was a certain logic to the initial reports. China’s defense ties with Burma developed rapidly after 1988, giving Beijing new opportunities to protect its strategic interests in the south. Viewed from this perspective, reports of a Chinese base o­n o­ne of Burma’s offshore islands were not surprising. China’s historical concerns about India, and its interest in protecting its sea lines of communication to the Middle East, argued for an intelligence collection effort in the northern Indian Ocean region, even if Beijing did not enjoy such close relations with Rangoon.

 

Also, the journalists and scholars who wrote about this subject could be forgiven for thinking they were o­n solid ground. Senior members of the Indian security establishment were clearly convinced that the Chinese had established a major intelligence presence in the Andaman Sea. In Rangoon and New Delhi, Indian officials made repeated representations about this perceived challenge to India’s national interests. In 1998 George Fernandez, then India’s defense minister, publicly accused China of helping Burma install surveillance and communications equipment o­n Great Coco Island.

 

Yet warnings had been sounded by a few Burma-watchers. They pointed out Rangoon’s sensitivity to any perceived challenges to its sovereignty, and the regime’s continuing suspicions of China’s long-term motives in the region. There was also a notable absence of firm evidence for the Chinese base. More importantly, perhaps, at no stage had the existence of the base been officially confirmed by any government other than India’s, which was hardly an objective observer. This included the US, which had both an interest in China’s activities in the Indian Ocean and the means to detect them.

 

The story of the Chinese SIGINT facility o­n Great Coco Island is perhaps best viewed as a cautionary tale.



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