How a single news agency report led to the accepted belief that China has a sophisticated intelligence post in Burmese waters

For almost 15 years, there has been a steady stream of newspaper stories, scholarly monographs and books that have referred inter alia to a large Chinese signals intelligence (SIGINT) station on Burma’s Great Coco Island, in the Andaman Sea. Yet it would now appear that there is no such base on this island, nor ever has been. The explosion of this myth highlights the dearth of reliable information about strategic developments in Burma since the creation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1988.

The Great Coco Island mystery seems to stem from a report issued by the Kyodo News Agency on September 17, 1992. Citing diplomatic sources in Beijing, Kyodo claimed that China was building a radar facility on Burma’s Coco islands, under a secret agreement with the SLORC. The Kyodo report was picked up by Reuters the next day, and repeated in the US newspaper The Estimate the following week. From there, the story quickly found its way into a wide range of newspapers and military journals.

Questioned about the Kyodo report, the Chinese Foreign Ministry flatly denied it. When asked to make a comment, the SLORC declined either to confirm or deny the report. On October 22, 1992, however, The Estimate published a follow-up story citing a “highly-placed, knowledgeable US military source,” who stated that Chinese personnel had been seen on Hainggyi Island in the Irrawaddy delta, where another secret base was believed to be under construction. 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. Each time the reports were cited in books and reputable journals they gained credibility, and soon the existence of a large Chinese base on Great Coco Island was widely accepted as an established fact.

Throughout this entire period, Burma consistently denied that it had permitted China to establish any bases on its soil. The SLORC conceded that China was helping Burma to upgrade its civil and military infrastructure, but repeatedly stated that there was no Chinese facility on Great Coco Island. Beijing too issued formal denials, characterizing the story as a collection of unsubstantiated rumors. The Burmese government’s reputation was so poor, however, that its denials were not believed. China’s statements on the subject were also dismissed.

So persistent were Indian claims of Chinese bases in Burma, however, that they threatened to harm the relationship between Rangoon and New Delhi that began to gather pace in the late 1990s. In 1999, Burma’s then powerful intelligence chief, Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, invited the Indian defense attache in Rangoon to visit any place in the country where the attache believed Chinese forces were stationed, to verify the military regime’s statements.

This invitation does not seem to have been taken up, but in a later attempt to settle India’s concerns, the regime (known since 1997 as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC) apparently permitted India to conduct a surveillance flight over Great Coco Island, to see for itself that there was no Chinese SIGINT base there. It is difficult to imagine such a flight being permitted if the SPDC had anything important to hide.

Finally, in August 2005, India’s chief of naval staff told reporters that he believed the Burmese when they said there was no Chinese presence in the Coco Islands. Two months later he stated categorically that India had “firm information that there is no listening post, radar or surveillance station belonging to the Chinese on Coco Islands.”

It is conceivable that a small intelligence collection station once existed on Great Coco Island, but was then dismantled. 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. Accurate information about security developments in Burma has always been difficult to obtain, cloaked as these issues invariably are in official secrecy and confused by countless rumors. Burma will always have its fair share of mysteries but, if policy makers are not to be led astray, any analysis of its strategic environment must be grounded in hard facts, not based on myths and misconceptions.

Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, in Brisbane, Australia.