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circle of suspicion
Circle Of Suspicion
by Bruce Hawke and Ethan Casey in Bangkok
Outlook, May 25,1998
For years, international defence experts have been reporting Chinese
activity in Myanmar, particularly on the Great Coco Island, just 20
nautical miles from the northern tip of the Andamans. The rapidly growing
Chinese presence in Myanmar, which started after the military regime
assumed power in Rangoon in 1989, has lent credence to Indian fears that
China plans to "encircle" India strategically.
"China's aim is to have a strategic outpost in the Indian Ocean.
Encircling India is its grand strategy," asserts Maj. Gen. Y.K. Gera,
deputy director of the United Services Institution. Of immediate concern
to India is the presence of four Chinese radar bases at Man-Aung island
off the Arakan coast, Hainggyi Island near the mouth of Bassein (Pathein)
river, Great Coco Island, and Zar Dat Gyi Island (also known as St.
Matthew's Island). The St. Mattrew's Island base, the biggest of the four,
also has the direct satellite link with China. In addition, there has been
an increased Chinese naval presence off the Myanmar coast, according to
Asian diplomats. There is also concern over the deep-sea port under
construction at Kyauk Phyu, Ramree Island off the Arakan coast, ostensibly
to provide an Indian Ocean port for Chinese exports.
China, of course, categorically denies that it has anything to do with the
Coco Islands. Only, the facts speak otherwise. There are obvious reasons
why China would want an Indian Ocean port for trade - the most important
being that this would halve its shipping costs to Europe. But since
India's military is second in Asia only to China's, Beijing would also
like to keep an eye on its only serious regional rival.
Besides the sea route, China is also serious about building roads links
with Myanmar. A road has been built from China's Yunnan province to Bhamo
in Myanmar, from which the Irrawaddy river is navigable to all points
south. At the south end of the Irrawaddy, a road is being upgraded from
Minhla (north of Prome or Pyay) to the town of An on the Arakan (Rakhine)
coast, and a causeway to be constructed to Kyauk Phyu harbour.
Minhla's proximity to important military installations and arms and
ordinance factories in Myanmar raises concern that planned new weapon
plants surveyed by Chinese engineers in 1994 might be made operational.
The port has naval potential and is seen as a long-term security threat to
India. According to one Asian military analyst, the water in the area is
deep and capable of hiding submarines.
In a related development in March 1997, a 30 years fishing lease was
signed, allowing 225 Chinese fishing boats to trawls in Myanmar's waters.
China has traditionally used fishing boats as a cover for intelligence
gathering in the past. Dr Swaran Singh of the Institute for defence
studies and analyses (IDSA) points out that in November 1994, the Indian
Coast Guard intercepted a trawler equipped with sophisticated surveillance
equipment. Heeding China's appeal not to make the issue an international
one, India downplayed the incident. Two months later, in January 1995, New
Delhi signed a deal with China for the supply of enriched uranium. Singh,
however, points out that the threat should not be seen solely in the naval
perspective, since the proliferation in small arms, drug production and
money laundering in the region has a direct long term impact on India's
Chinese technical and training staff, around 400, have been present in
Myanmar since the early 90's, and hundreds of Myanmar's military personnel
are known to have trained in China over the last six years. Since 1988,
the vast majority of Myanmar's military imports have come from China,
largely because only China was willing to provide with soft loans.
According to military analysts, China has assisted Myanmar in developing
new infantry machine guns and automatic rifles to be manufactured in
India apart, other neighbors are also concerned at these developments.
Since 1995, Singapore has been operating twice-weekly surveillance flights
over Myanmar's coast, using C-130s and Fokker F-50s equipped with signals
Jane's Defence Weekly said in January 1994 that "a signals intelligence
station has been established on Great Coco Island, but it is unclear
whether the facility is controlled by Rangoon or Beijing." The report
revealed the construction of a 50-meter tower on the isolated Island. It
quoted Chinese sources as saying that work on the island had begun two
years before "with Chinese technicians installing Chinese supplied
equipment". The signals station "is thought to cover the Andamans
facilities together with shipping in the Bay of Bengal, Andaman sea and
Malacca strait," the Weekly reported. The station will monitor
communications in these areas and later may also monitor Indian Missile
tests, it said.
The International Defence Review reported later the same year that the
50-meter antenna for signals intelligence had been detected by US
satellites. "The suspicion that this new equipment was likely to be
operated at least in part by Chinese technicians led to fears that
Beijing's intelligence agencies would monitor this sensitive region." The
intelligence station could observe India's missile tests at
Chandipuron-sea, the journal said, and that India made several diplomatic
protests to Myanmar over this.
But a 1995 article in Jane's Intelligence Review said there was no
conclusive proof of an intelligence station on Coco Island. A monitoring
station from mainland Myanmar would be more useful to China, it said. The
article spoke of Indian reports that "China already conducts electronic
and other surveillance in the Indian ocean from trawlers of the kind
captured in the Bay of Bengal."
Jane's Intelligence Review reported last year that "Chinese strategic
literature continues to list India as one of China's most likely opponent
in regional conflicts." It referred to the remark in 1993 by a senior
officer of China's People Liberation Army and director of the Chinese
Academy of Military Sciences that China cannot accept "India's naval
expansion and that 'we are not prepared to let the Indian Ocean become
Indian's Ocean." It said that "strategic alliances with Pakistan in the
southwest and Myanmar in the southeast thus constitute the linchpin of
Myanmar's coast is 1,930 long and includes 852 islands. According to a
paper of the Strategic and Defence Studies Center in Canberra, Myanmar
claims a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles, a contiguous zone of 24
nautical miles and an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles. That
makes for a legitimate Myanmarese presence in waters very close to the
Andamans. But the paper also says that Myanmar government may not permit
the Chinese the unlimited access they want.
India's relations with Myanmar deteriorated simultaneously following
strong criticism of the military junta, though there are reports of
attempts to improve relations following a visit by former foreign
secretary J. N. Dixit. But reports in defence journals speak of a closer
relationship between Myanmar and Pakistan, with the exchange of several
defence missions, and unconfirmed reports of supply of Pakistani arms and
ammunition to Myanmar.
Most US experts, however, scoffed at the notion that China was
"encircling" India strategically. "There is almost nothing serious in
these suspensions. As far as I know and the US government knows, the
facilities that the Chinese have helped to build in the Coco islands are
relatively small-scale and not designed to serve major Chinese ships,"
said Paul Kreisberg of the Woodrow Wilson Institute. But a State
Department expert on China felt that there were more chances of an
Indo-China row over the border issue, since it would take years for China
to have the capability to move into the Indian Ocean. If the Chinese could
not make a serious treat to Taiwan, they would hardly be likely to do so
in the Andamans, says a Congressional source.
Sumit Ganguly of New York's City University has the last word. He agree
with George Fernandes's assertion that China is a threat to India and is
happy that "someone has shown some spine and spoken out against the
Chinese and put them on notice."
(With Sanjay Suri, Ludwina Joseph and Ramananda Sengupta)
Burma Info (CCN)