Decoding the infrastructure development on Myanmar’s Coco Islands

By Shwe Yee Oo
24 May 2023
Decoding the infrastructure development on Myanmar’s Coco Islands
A satellite view of the airfield and associated facilities on Myanmar’s Great Coco Island. Photo: Google Earth

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 to have been freshly lengthened to 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) from 1,300 meters 10 years ago, and the new hangars appear to have been enlarged by approximately 40 meters. This extensive nature of this development has provoked suspicions as to whether the infrastructure under construction is a Chinese espionage base for suspected 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 in Myanmar seems to have strengthened the military’s relationship with China and increased Beijing’s sway over Myanmar. The presence of a Chinese intelligence base on the Coco Islands has long been rumored among the international security community, yet there was little to no evidence to prove China’s presence before the satellite imagery’s release.

Given the prevailing instability across Myanmar, the 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 (BRI), the infrastructure development taking place on the Coco Islands is reminiscent 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. Due to the extreme difficulty of attracting visitors to Koh Kong Beachside resort, the development of an international airport was not a logical 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 per cent of Cambodia’s coastline and is located 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 declared that the airport would be for civilian use, there were critiques that Beijing would benefit from the Dara Sakor airport in terms of its military strategy.

Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port is another China-sponsored infrastructure project that raised security concerns. In 2017, a 70 per cent stake in the port was leased to China Merchants Ports Holding Company Limited (CM Port) for 99 years under a concession agreement signed by Sri Lanka’s cabinet of ministers, keeping the remaining 30 per cent under Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Although the commercial operations are said to be operated jointly by the CM Port and SLPA, the port is still considered a Chinese debt trap. Hambantota Port is poorly connected to the rest of the country, and thus its purpose has been questioned. 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 the Coco Islands?

Given the projects above, there are questions as to whether Coco Island’s airport construction would eventually provide critical infrastructure for China, facilitating its future military expansion. The Coco Islands are remote from and poorly connected to the rest of Myanmar. It would seem 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.

For China, the Atlantic Ocean is important for its exports while the Indian Ocean is 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 the mysterious nature of the relationship, given the previously mentioned cases of BRI construction in corrupt states.

In fact, the Coco Islands’ undisclosed construction, along with other infrastructure ventures in its vicinity, have revived the “String of Pearls” Theory. This suggests that the Coco Islands could be viewed as one of the “beads” in China’s strategy to expand its military presence. According to this theory, China can be expected to persist in establishing its economic and military foothold in or around the Indian Ocean region 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 will handle tensions in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, key BRI infrastructure on the 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 needs to establish a mechanism for “sustainable transparency” to demonstrate its sincere and responsible economic cooperation. Without transparency, it will be hard for China to justify the development of infrastructure of such questionable use.

It is recommended that other major powers also enhance their active engagement in the Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean regions to appropriately respond to the expanding influence of China because it is crucial to explore constructive measures that promote a balanced regional environment and ensure the collective stability and prosperity.