Cloak and Dagger: China's Intrigues in the South Asian Theater"
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 21 Feb , 2024

Upon Coco’s isle, shadows intertwine,

A military veil in silence unfurls,

Obscured, clandestine, a dark design,

Where hangars whisper secrets to the swirls.

In Sri Lanka’s embrace, a ground station lies,

Remote, yet close, its intentions unknown,

A symphony of whispers ‘neath starry skies,

A haunting tune, a clandestine drone.

Beware the radome’s eerie silhouette,

A dome of secrets, a cryptic embrace,

A bridge to shadows, a path of regret,

In the veiled depths, a foreboding space.

Satellite eyes cast a spectral gaze,

A sonnet of darkness, a nation’s maze.

The recent emergence of two significant projects, the construction of a military facility on Coco Islands (14°07′00″N 93°22′03″E) in Myanmar and the proposed establishment of a remote satellite receiving ground station system in Sri Lanka (Dondra Bay in the island’s southernmost-tip at 5°54’59.99″ N 80°34’59.99″ E) with Chinese support (The Aerospace Information Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is involved in this project)., has set off alarm bells in India regarding potential surveillance operations across the region. Satellite imagery has uncovered the rapid progress of the military facility on Coco Islands, strategically positioned just North of India’s Andaman and Nicobar island chain. There have been reports of Chinese-built SIGINT (Signal Intelligence)listening stations in the Andaman Sea at least at Manaung, Hainggyi, Zadetkyi and the Coco Islands in Myanmar. Chinese technicians and instructors have worked on radar installations in naval bases and facilities near Yangon, Moulmein and Mergui.

Meanwhile, plans for the ground station system in Sri Lanka, reportedly backed by China, have raised concerns about its potential role in monitoring Indian assets and sensitive information throughout the area. Moreover, the project location would allow China to increase its espionage operations against Western navy vessels in the Indian Ocean. More dangers are that it would allow China to develop the potential to spy on U.S. and British military installations in Diego Garcia and Indian naval bases. India’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR (SDSC SHAR), Sriharikota, the Spaceport of India, is one of the lead centres of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO); its missile test range in Odisha, and several other military facilities in the peninsular region would all fall within Chinese surveillance. China’s orbital launch rate has risen dramatically over recent years, increasing China’s need for ground station support infrastructure. These developments, underscored by recent findings from Chatham House, highlight a growing military presence and infrastructure expansion, fueling apprehensions about China’s intentions and its historical ties between civil space programs and military operations. As diplomatic tensions escalate due to recent incidents involving Chinese vessels, it becomes increasingly imperative for regional stakeholders to closely scrutinize and respond to these developments to safeguard national security interests and preserve regional stability.

The recent developments surrounding the construction of a military facility on Coco Islands [a forward defensive position for Kyaukpyu Port, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) maritime terminus which ends in China’s southern Yunnan province in Myanmar and the proposed establishment of a remote satellite receiving ground station system in Sri Lanka, both facilitated by substantial Chinese assistance, are not mere isolated incidents but integral components of a broader, meticulously orchestrated strategy. These actions, while ostensibly aimed at bolstering regional infrastructure and cooperation, cast a looming shadow of apprehension over India and its neighboring countries. The strategic positioning of the military facility on Coco Islands, strategically located near the Andaman and Nicobar islands, cannot be dismissed as a mere coincidence. It serves as a stark reminder of China’s ambitious geopolitical maneuvering, seeking to establish a significant foothold in the Indian Ocean region. Beijing has staked a large investment in the country via the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor to access Indian Ocean sea lanes as a way to bypass the Strait of Malacca -which has acted as a critical sea lane for shipping destined for China’s east coast – and direct energy imports instead over land into China’s Yunnan province.Similarly, the proposed satellite ground station in Sri Lanka, ostensibly for academic and research purposes, raises legitimate concerns about its potential dual-use capabilities and the extent of Chinese influence over sensitive data and communication channels. India’s unease is warranted, as these developments signify a concerted effort by China to assert its dominance and potentially wield surveillance capabilities over the entire region, undermining the security and sovereignty of neighboring nations.

Let’s delve deeper into the unfolding scenario. The Coco Islands, strategically nestled close to India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, are now the focal point of a concerning development: the rapid establishment of what seems to be an expansive military complex, purportedly spearheaded by China. Satellite surveillance paints a vivid picture of escalating activity, with the landscape transforming to accommodate imposing hangars, expansive causeways, and an elongated runway. These telltale signs point to more than mere infrastructure; they hint at a facility brimming with potential military capabilities, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the region. Moreover, beneath the surface lies a shroud of secrecy, with whispers of a longstanding signals intelligence operation, quietly gathering information for years. This revelation unveils a strategic ambition that transcends mere construction; it underscores a calculated agenda aimed at asserting dominance and reshaping the geopolitical landscape.

The ramifications of China’s involvement extend far beyond the confines of Myanmar. In Sri Lanka, a nation historically known for its strategic significance, plans are afoot for a satellite receiving ground station, presented as a collaborative effort between Chinese academia and a local university. While this endeavor may appear benign at first glance, given China’s track record of blurring the lines between its civil space program and military pursuits, a healthy dose of skepticism is not only prudent but necessary. The potential implications for India are profound. With its burgeoning space and missile programs, India’s assets could easily become targets for surveillance and interception through such a station. This poses a direct threat not only to the integrity of sensitive data but also to the very bedrock of India’s strategic capabilities. The station’s establishment in Sri Lanka could effectively serve as a Chinese foothold in the Indian Ocean, further complicating an already delicate regional balance of power.

But this isn’t merely a story of distant installations and obscure technologies. It’s a narrative deeply intertwined with fundamental principles of sovereignty, security, and the inherent right of nations to safeguard their interests. The emergence of military facilities on the Coco Islands signals more than just a strategic development; it represents a potential infringement on the sovereignty of neighboring nations. With its strategic location near India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, the Coco Islands could transform into a pivotal vantage point for surveillance, intelligence gathering, and even coercive actions, posing a direct threat to regional stability. Similarly, Sri Lanka finds itself at a crossroads, where its decisions regarding the proposed satellite receiving ground station system could either reinforce its sovereignty or compromise it in the pursuit of short-term gains. Already a focal point of geopolitical maneuvering, Sri Lanka risks being maneuvered into a position of subservience, becoming a mere pawn in a larger game of dominance played out by external powers.

China’s expanding network of ground stations is not limited to the confines of the Indian Ocean region; rather, it extends its reach across continents, exemplified by recent announcements of ground stations in South America and Antarctica. The parallels drawn with Argentina’s Espacio Lejano ground station are both alarming and instructive, as it remains embroiled in controversy amid suspicions of espionage, serving as a cautionary tale against turning a blind eye to potential threats. Moreover, the presence of Chinese vessels, notably the Yuan Wang series, in Sri Lankan waters adds another layer of concern, suggesting a concerted effort to gather intelligence and assert influence in strategically significant regions. These developments underscore the gravity of the situation and the imperative for proactive measures to safeguard national security interests against encroachment and undue influence.

India, as a sovereign nation, cannot afford to be complacent in the face of such encroachment on its sovereignty. The sanctity of its borders, extending both terrestrial and celestial, must be fiercely guarded to preserve national security and integrity. The legacy of past confrontations, such as the diplomatic showdown triggered by the docking of Yuan Wang-5 in Hambantota, vividly underscores the high stakes involved in safeguarding India’s interests. The deferment of crucial missile tests in response to the presence of Chinese vessels lurking nearby serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerability of India’s strategic assets and the need for constant vigilance. In this rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, where power dynamics are constantly shifting, India must assert itself with unwavering resolve to protect its sovereignty and secure its rightful place on the global stage.

In an era characterized by heightened geopolitical rivalry and the relentless pursuit of strategic advantage, India stands at a pivotal crossroads where the defense of its sovereignty transcends mere choice—it becomes an existential imperative of unparalleled urgency. The seemingly innocuous endeavors of erecting military outposts and establishing satellite facilities, when examined individually, might deceive the casual observer into perceiving them as innocuous developments. However, when viewed through a wider lens, their cumulative effect paints a disconcerting panorama fraught with the potential to unravel the delicate fabric of stability that binds the region together. These undertakings, far from being mere infrastructural projects, represent a direct assault on India’s territorial integrity and its hard-won autonomy in strategic decision-making. The ramifications extend beyond the physical realm; they strike at the very heart of India’s identity as a sovereign nation, demanding a resolute response to safeguard its interests and uphold its rightful place in the global order.

Now more than ever, vigilance must be our watchword, and unity our rallying cry. We cannot afford to falter in our resolve to safeguard our nation’s interests against external encroachments. Every brick laid, every satellite launched, carries implications far beyond their immediate purpose. They symbolize not only technological advancements but also the assertion of power and influence. The ramifications of such endeavors reverberate across geopolitical fault lines, shaping the contours of global politics and security. Therefore, it is imperative that we remain steadfast in our commitment to defending our sovereignty and ensuring the prosperity of our people. We must always remain ‘alert’-physically and digitally, against any attempts to undermine our national integrity. Let us stand together, unwavering and resolute, as guardians of our nation’s destiny. In this era of great power competition, our vigilance and unity will serve as bulwarks against external threats, preserving our freedom and sovereignty for generations to come.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr. Aniruddha Babar

is a Senior Faculty, Researcher & National Security Analyst, Dept. of Political Science, Tetso College, Nagaland and The Director of "Project Constitutional Justice," is a well- known figure whose influence spans across various domains, including public service, social advocacy, law, politics, research and academia. Dr. Aniruddha's expertise in Geopolitics, National Security, Civil-Military Relationship, Public Policy, Constitutional & Procedural Law and Governance has earned him significant respect and recognition within his field.

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