Cocos Islands and Sino-US Rivalry in the Indian Ocean

Canberra says the building of a air base on the Cocos is not an immediate priority but could be considered actively in the future.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | New Delhi | Published:April 2, 2012 12:31 pm

Reports from the United States say Washington wants to develop the Australian owned Cocos Islands southeast of the Andamans into a base for military surveillance aircraft that can monitor China’s growing naval activity in eastern Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Canberra,which has not denied these reports,says the building of a air base on the Cocos is not an immediate priority but could be considered actively in the future.

For India,naval rivalry between China and the United States is no longer an abstract or distant activity. The maritime jousting between the Beijing and Washington is no longer limited to the Western Pacific.

As Sino-American military tensions spill over into the Indian Ocean,Delhi must come to terms with the fusion of the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea into a single strategic theatre.

According to the ‘Washington Post’,the US is planning to deploy maritime reconnaissance aircraft like the P-8 and unmanned drones like ‘Global Hawk’ to keep a close watch on the growing Chinese naval activity in the waters of South East Asia.

The Cocos Islands are located south of the Indonesian Archipelago and sit close to the Sea Lines of Communication linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They were brought to international attention by Captain William Keeling of the East India Company at the turn of the 17th century.

China’s vital supplies of energy and other natural resources from the Indian Ocean have to go through the Malacca Straits or use other SLOCs in South East Asia.

The Cocos Islands must not be confused with the Coco Islands north of the Andaman chain and are owned by Myanmar. There was much speculation in the 1990s that the Chinese navy was building communication facilities on the Coco Islands. The military government in Myanmar had strongly denied the speculation.

Since then Bay of Bengal has become a lot more important to Beijing which has built a new commercial port in Hambantota,Sri Lanka and building oil and natural gas pipelines from the Ramree island off Myanmar’s Arakan coast to Kunming,the capital of China’s

The US military interest in the Australian Cocos is part of the new U.S. strategic pivot to Asia that was announced by President Barack Obama during his visit to the region last November.

Shaken by the rapid rise of China and its growing naval power,Washington is determined to preserve its historic primacy in the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

In the new great power naval contestation,most island territories in India’s neighbourhood are likely to become targets. Delhi will hopefully end the traditional neglect of its own island territories like the Andamans and Lakshwadweep and begin to pay strategic attention to all islands — big and small — in the Indian Ocean.

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