Balancing Power in the Bay: The Geopolitical Implications of Coco Islands and Bangladesh’s Concerns

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Sarder Ali Haider


The Coco Islands located in the northeastern part of the Bay of Bengal might seem insignificant in the larger regional politics, their importance cannot be underestimated. To those familiar with sea-based strategies, these islands are not just dots on a map; they play a key role in the delicate balance of regional power and interests.

The Coco Islands, mainly the Great Coco and Little Coco, are more than just picturesque landmasses amid blue waters. Situated between India and Myanmar, both neighbors to Bangladesh, their location near the expanding maritime reach of Bangladesh makes them vital players in the Bay of Bengal’s geopolitical landscape.

Historically a transit point for seafarers and merchants, the Coco Islands were frequently visited due to their location on ancient trade routes linking India, Myanmar, and Southeast Asia. The Bay of Bengal itself has been a hotspot for centuries, witnessing the convergence of diverse cultures, thriving trade networks, and occasionally, naval skirmishes[1].

Photo-1: Coco Islands

Today, as global powers pivot towards the Indo-Pacific region, recognizing its potential to shape 21st-century geopolitics, areas like the Coco Islands assume heightened significance. They are at the nexus of major shipping lanes, a potential vantage point for military surveillance, and a possible fulcrum for power projection in the region.

Furthermore, the islands’ proximity to the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago of India, coupled with the evolving dynamics of Myanmar’s political landscape and China’s growing maritime ambitions, accentuates their strategic value. For Bangladesh, whose maritime aspirations are taking flight, understanding the geopolitical ballet around the Coco Islands is not just prudent, it’s imperative[2].

As we explore deeper into this article, we will unravel the layered significance of the Coco Islands, examine the concerns they elicit in regional players, especially Bangladesh, and attempt to forecast the role these islands might play in future maritime politics.

Setting the Context: Geopolitical Dynamics of the Bay of Bengal

The Bay of Bengal, the world’s largest bay, is not just a vast expanse of water bordered by nine countries. It is a potent mix of opportunities, rivalries, resources, and strategic importance. It is an arena where geopolitics, economics, and maritime security concerns intertwine, and the dynamics of this bay are a microcosm of the larger Indo-Pacific narrative.

Trade and Economic Significance: The Bay of Bengal has historically been a nexus of maritime trade routes linking South Asia with East Asia and the broader Indian Ocean region. Today, it witnesses massive trade volume, with ships ferrying goods between the fast-growing economies of ASEAN, South Asia, and beyond. The Bay is a lifeline for the nations surrounding it, as they rely heavily on these waters for trade, fisheries, and energy routes.

Strategic Military Importance: Given its location, the Bay provides access to the Malacca Straits, one of the world’s busiest shipping chokepoints. Any power seeking dominance or influence in the Indo-Pacific cannot afford to ignore the strategic relevance of the Bay of Bengal. This explains the increasing naval activities by not just regional, but also extra-regional powers like the USA and China.

Territorial Disputes and Maritime Diplomacy: Over the past few decades, nations around the Bay of Bengal have been involved in various territorial and maritime disputes. While some, like the maritime boundary issues between India and Bangladesh or between Myanmar and Bangladesh, have been resolved amicably through international arbitration, others remain a point of contention. The evolving maritime boundaries have implications for resource exploration, fishing rights, and strategic dominance.

China’s Shadow: The increasing influence of China in the region, both economically and militarily, adds another layer to the geopolitical matrix. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through which China aims to enhance connectivity and cooperation, has footprints in the Bay of Bengal, with significant investments in ports, roads, and other infrastructures. China’s potential naval presence and surveillance capabilities in the region, through places like the Coco Islands, can shift the regional power balance and is a matter of concern for many nations[3].

Environmental Concerns and Cooperation: The Bay of Bengal is prone to natural calamities like cyclones and is witnessing the adverse impacts of climate change. This requires regional cooperation for disaster management, search and rescue operations, and environmental conservation. The Bay’s rich biodiversity also offers an avenue for cooperative endeavors among nations.

Evolving Regional Alliances: Mechanisms like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) signal a regional shift towards a more Bay-centric cooperative framework. Comprising Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal, BIMSTEC can be an effective platform for harnessing the collective potentials of the Bay region, from trade to security.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial, as the geopolitical dance around the Coco Islands is choreographed to the larger rhythm of the Bay of Bengal’s evolving story. For countries like Bangladesh, these dynamics don’t just shape foreign policy decisions but also influence domestic imperatives like economic development, security concerns, and environmental policies.

Historical Context

Looking at history can help us understand today, and the Coco Islands are a good example. Their story is filled with adventures, settlements, trade, and strategy. To grasp why the Coco Islands matter now, we need to know their past.

Ancient Maritime Links: The Coco Islands were not always the secluded pieces of land they might appear today. These islands lay on the ancient maritime routes connecting India, Myanmar, and the larger Southeast Asian regions. Seafarers and merchants frequented these islands, taking advantage of their strategic position amidst the thriving trade networks of old.

Colonial Encounters: The 16th century saw the arrival of Portuguese sailors, who, struck by the islands’ abundant coconut trees, named them ‘Coco’, drawing from the Portuguese word for coconut. However, the most consequential colonial encounter was with the British. The East India Company annexed the islands in the 18th century. As part of the British Raj, the Coco Islands played a logistical role, providing provisions like coconuts to the penal colony established at Port Blair on South Andaman Island, a facility conceived in the wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857[4].

Leases, Lighthouses, and Governance: The late 19th century marked a period of administrative shifts for the islands. Initially leased to the Jadwet family, who erected a lighthouse on Table Island, administrative challenges led to the islands’ governance being transferred to British Burma by 1882. Efforts to develop the islands, however, were largely unsuccessful during this period.

World Wars and Shifting Allegiances: The seismic events of the 20th century didn’t spare the Coco Islands. World War II saw Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945. Post-war, as the colonial world order crumbled and nations sought their destinies, Burma retained the Coco Islands when it achieved the status of a crown colony in 1937 and subsequently gained independence in 1948.

Post-Colonial Importance: In the wake of independence, the islands underwent significant changes. Ne Win’s Burmese government established a penal colony on the Great Coco Island in 1959, which, following a series of inmate protests, was closed in the early 1970s. The remnants of this penal facility were handed over to the Burmese Navy, marking the beginning of the islands’ military significance.

Alleged International Leases and Modern Relevance: In the late 20th and early 21st century, claims and counterclaims regarding the islands’ lease to foreign powers, particularly China, made headlines. While evidence for many of these claims remains elusive, they underscore the Coco Islands’ strategic importance in regional geopolitics.

The Coco Islands’ journey, from ancient maritime hubs to points of contention in modern geopolitical discussions, is a testament to their enduring significance. While their allegiances shifted, from ancient seafarers to colonial powers and then to independent nations, their importance as a strategic asset in the Bay of Bengal has remained consistent.

The Geographical Significance of Coco Islands

The Coco Islands, a seemingly remote cluster of islands in the Bay of Bengal, are more than meets the eye. Geographically, their position has made them a point of interest for many nations in the region, particularly India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Their significance stems from a combination of factors that have both historical and contemporary relevance.

Photo-2: Navigation Channels of Coco Island

Location and Proximity to Key Nations:

India: The Coco Islands are situated just south of Myanmar’s Preparis Island and north of India’s Landfall Island, making it a stone’s throw away from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This proximity makes it a point of strategic interest for India, especially considering the potential for surveillance and monitoring of naval activities.

Myanmar: As part of the Yangon Region of Myanmar since 1937, the Coco Islands have played a significant role in Myanmar’s naval and maritime strategy. Their possession has enabled Myanmar to maintain a presence in a critical region of the Bay of Bengal.

Bangladesh: Though geographically a bit more distant than India and Myanmar, the location of the Coco Islands is of interest to Bangladesh due to its concerns over regional stability and the flow of trade through the Bay of Bengal.

Major Shipping Routes and Trade:

Gateway to Southeast Asia: The Coco Islands are strategically located along ancient maritime routes that connected India, Myanmar, and Southeast Asia. This historical context is still relevant today, with major shipping lanes passing close to the islands, making them crucial for trade and commerce.

The Bay of Bengal: This region has always been a hotspot for maritime trade. The Bay of Bengal, which envelops the Coco Islands, is the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean. As such, the islands provide an observational point for traffic entering and exiting one of the most bustling marine highways in the world.

Naval Significance: With increasing naval activity in the Bay of Bengal, especially by major global powers and regional players, the Coco Islands become pivotal for naval logistics and operations. Their location offers an advantage for naval surveillance, reconnaissance, and strategic deployment.

Economic Exclusivity: The waters surrounding the Coco Islands could potentially have untapped natural resources. Having control or influence over these islands means having a say in the economic opportunities that these waters might provide, be it fisheries, hydrocarbon exploration, or other marine resources.

In essence, the Coco Islands, though small, have a geographical significance that has only been amplified in today’s geopolitically charged environment. Their position in the midst of major trade routes and close to key nations makes them a critical piece in the puzzle of regional politics and stability in the Bay of Bengal.

Regional Politics and Stability

The Coco Islands, while seemingly remote, lie at the heart of a network of political and strategic interests spanning multiple nations. Their geographical significance amplifies their political relevance, creating a nexus that affects regional stability.

India-Myanmar Relations: The Delicate Balance and Concerns Related to the Coco Islands.

Shared History and Strategic Interests: India and Myanmar have historically maintained friendly relations, cemented by cultural ties, shared borders, and economic interests. The Coco Islands, due to their proximity to India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, have been a point of mutual interest.

Security Concerns: India’s primary concern has been the possibility of foreign naval bases or surveillance infrastructure on the Coco Islands that might overlook or threaten the Andaman and Nicobar command, a critical base for India. This worry has periodically caused tensions, especially with reports suggesting potential Chinese involvement on the islands.

Diplomatic Engagements: India has, over the years, sought to deepen its engagement with Myanmar, ensuring a balance of power in the region. This includes maritime cooperation, infrastructure development, and military exchanges, all aimed at securing India’s interests and enhancing mutual trust.

China’s Potential Influence[5]: Historical Reports, Claims, and the Broader “String of Pearls” Strategy.

  1. Historical Context: Since the 1990s, there have been periodic reports suggesting China’s potential interest or involvement in the Coco Islands, fueling speculation and concern among regional players.
  2. The “String of Pearls”[6]: The Coco Islands’ strategic position fits into the broader narrative of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy, where China allegedly aims to create a network of military and commercial facilities along its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) from mainland China to the Persian Gulf. This perception has caused apprehension among China’s neighbors, especially India.
  3. Rebuttals and Reality Checks: Both China and Myanmar have, at various points, denied claims of military bases or significant infrastructural developments with strategic intent on the Coco Islands. The actual extent of China’s involvement remains debated among geopolitical analysts.

ASEAN’s Stake and the Broader Implications for Southeast Asia.

Regional Integration and Connectivity: The Coco Islands can potentially play a role in projects aimed at connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia. Such integrative projects have often been discussed in ASEAN forums, given the region’s intent to boost connectivity and trade.

Balance of Power: ASEAN nations have a vested interest in ensuring that the Bay of Bengal and the surrounding regions remain stable, without a dominant power overshadowing the rest. The Coco Islands, thus, are symbolic of the broader regional dynamics at play, where ASEAN seeks to ensure that no single power, be it India, China, or others, has disproportionate influence.

Maritime Security: Piracy, smuggling, and other maritime security threats in the Bay of Bengal directly impact ASEAN nations. The Coco Islands’ strategic location makes them crucial for any regional maritime security initiative, emphasizing the need for collaborative efforts.

The Coco Islands’ political significance isn’t just tied to their geography but is intertwined with the regional politics of some of the world’s most influential nations. Their role in the balance of power, maritime security, and regional integration makes them a focal point in the stability of the Bay of Bengal and, by extension, much of Southeast Asia.

Bangladesh’s Stance

Bangladesh, located strategically in the heart of the Bay of Bengal, has vested interests in the developments around the Coco Islands. With a rapidly growing economy and increasing relevance in regional geopolitics, Bangladesh’s stance on the Coco Islands is influenced by a mix of economic, security, and diplomatic considerations.

Maritime and Economic Interests: Bangladesh’s Growing Maritime Economy and its Vulnerabilities.

  1. Blue Economy Vision: Bangladesh has been keen on leveraging its maritime resources, encompassing sectors like fisheries, offshore energy exploration, and shipping. The nation has embarked on its “blue economy” vision, looking to harness the potential of its vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Bay of Bengal. Developments in or around the Coco Islands can have a direct impact on these aspirations[7].
  2. Maritime Security: Protecting its maritime boundaries, especially its EEZ, from potential threats like illegal fishing, smuggling, and territorial encroachments is paramount for Bangladesh. The activities in the Coco Islands, given their proximity, directly affect this security paradigm.
  3. Trade and Shipping: The Bay of Bengal is a crucial maritime route for Bangladesh, facilitating a significant portion of its trade. Ensuring the free and safe passage of its commercial vessels is of vital importance, and any military or strategic developments in the Coco Islands could be seen as potential disruptions to this.

Diplomatic Challenges: Navigating Relations with India, Myanmar, and China.

  1. India and Bangladesh: Historically, India and Bangladesh have shared a close yet intricate relationship. While they have mutual interests in ensuring the Bay of Bengal’s stability, Bangladesh has to balance its diplomatic ties with India, especially when it concerns developments like those in the Coco Islands that India might perceive as security threats.
  2. Myanmar Relations: Bangladesh and Myanmar share a long border and have had points of contention, most notably the Rohingya refugee crisis. The Coco Islands, being part of Myanmar, pose an added dimension to their bilateral ties. Bangladesh would need to engage proactively with Myanmar to ensure mutual respect for each other’s strategic and security interests.
  3. Engagement with China: China is a significant trade partner and investor in Bangladesh. As China potentially expresses strategic interests in places like the Coco Islands, Bangladesh finds itself in a delicate position. It needs to accommodate its economic ties with China while ensuring its sovereignty and security interests aren’t compromised.

The Coco Islands aren’t just a distant archipelago for Bangladesh but a significant factor in its regional geopolitics. Balancing its economic aspirations with the complex web of regional relationships requires astute diplomacy and strategic foresight.

Security and Surveillance Concerns

The shifting dynamics in the Bay of Bengal, particularly around the Coco Islands, raise several security and surveillance issues for Bangladesh. These concerns stem not just from traditional state actors but also from non-state entities.

Traditional Security Concerns:

  1. Naval Activities: The presence of foreign naval vessels, whether for strategic or commercial purposes, close to Bangladesh’s maritime boundaries could be perceived as a potential threat, necessitating robust monitoring mechanisms.
  2. Intelligence Gathering: The potential for the Coco Islands to house surveillance and intelligence-gathering infrastructure is a concern for Bangladesh. Such capabilities in close proximity can undermine its national security.
  3. Border Disputes: Historical maritime border disputes in the Bay of Bengal, especially concerning Myanmar and India, make any strategic movement in the region particularly sensitive for Bangladesh.

Non-state Threats:

  1. Illegal Fishing: The rich marine biodiversity around the Bay of Bengal attracts illegal fishing trawlers. These can infringe upon Bangladesh’s EEZ, undermining its maritime resources.
  2. Smuggling and Piracy: The Bay of Bengal has been vulnerable to activities like smuggling and piracy. The Coco Islands’ strategic location can either act as a deterrent or, if not governed properly, a potential hotspot for such activities.
  3. Technological Surveillance: With advancements in satellite and drone technologies, the potential for continuous monitoring of maritime activities has increased. Bangladesh would need to upgrade its technological capabilities to detect and deter unwanted surveillance.

Environmental Implications

The Bay of Bengal is not just of strategic importance but also has immense ecological significance. The environmental implications of activities around the Coco Islands can have broad ramifications for the entire region.

Ecological Importance:

  1. Marine Biodiversity: The Bay of Bengal is home to a rich variety of marine life, including endangered species. Any militarization or industrial activity in the vicinity of the Coco Islands can pose threats to this fragile ecosystem.
  2. Coral Reefs and Mangroves: These natural structures act as buffers, protect coastlines, and support a diverse marine life. They are sensitive to pollution, and any mismanaged activity can have lasting impacts.

Environmental Threats:

  1. Pollution: Naval and commercial ships can be sources of oil spills, waste discharge, and other forms of pollution, jeopardizing the health of the marine ecosystem.
  2. Over-exploitation: Uncontrolled fishing, driven by commercial interests, can lead to a decline in fish populations, upsetting the ecological balance.

Climate Change Implications:

  1. Rising Sea Levels: As a low-lying nation, Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels. Any activity that accelerates global warming, directly or indirectly, can have adverse impacts on Bangladesh’s coastal regions.
  2. Natural Calamities: The Bay of Bengal is prone to cyclones. Environmental degradation can exacerbate the impacts of such natural disasters, endangering human lives and causing economic setbacks.

While the Coco Islands’ strategic importance is undeniable, it’s imperative to recognize and address the intricate web of security, surveillance, and environmental concerns they present, especially for nations like Bangladesh situated in the heart of the Bay of Bengal.

Future Outlook

The Coco Islands’ strategic significance, combined with the ever-evolving geopolitical landscape of the Bay of Bengal, makes the future of the region unpredictable. Several potential scenarios could unfold, each with its own implications for regional players, especially Bangladesh.

Potential Scenarios:

  1. Militarization: Given their location, the islands may be seen as a strategic military outpost. This could involve the establishment of naval bases, surveillance systems, and airfields. The militarization of the islands could escalate tensions in the region, especially if it’s perceived as a move to counter the influence of another major power.
  2. Commercial Development: The islands’ position along major shipping routes can make them attractive for commercial development. This could involve port facilities, shipping hubs, or even tourism-related infrastructures. While this might offer economic opportunities, it can also raise concerns related to sovereignty, environment, and security.
  3. Conservation: Given the ecological importance of the Bay of Bengal, there could be a push, especially from international environmental entities, to declare the Coco Islands a protected zone. This approach would prioritize preservation over militarization or commercial activities.

Actions of Major Regional Players:

  1. India: Being the dominant power in the region, India will likely keep a close watch on developments in the Coco Islands. Any moves by other countries, especially those perceived as adversaries, could provoke a response, either diplomatically or strategically.
  2. China: As part of its broader Belt and Road Initiative and its alleged “String of Pearls” strategy, China may seek to have a presence, either commercial or strategic, in the Coco Islands. This will significantly influence the geopolitics of the region.
  3. ASEAN countries: Given their proximity and the importance of the Bay of Bengal for trade, ASEAN countries will be keen observers. They might push for a more collaborative approach, ensuring the region remains stable and open for commerce.

Opportunities and Challenges for Bangladesh:

  1. Diplomatic Opportunities: Bangladesh could position itself as a mediator, advocating for peaceful coexistence and collaboration among regional players. This could enhance its stature in regional forums.
  2. Economic Prospects: Commercial development of the Coco Islands could open up new trade routes and economic opportunities for Bangladesh, especially in sectors like shipping, fisheries, and tourism.
  3. Security Challenges: Militarization of the islands would necessitate Bangladesh to ramp up its own maritime security measures. It would also require significant investment in surveillance and defense capabilities.
  4. Environmental Challenges: Both militarization and commercial development pose environmental risks. Bangladesh, with its vulnerable coastline, would be directly impacted by any ecological degradation in the region.

The future of the Coco Islands is poised at a crossroads. The choices made by regional players in the coming years will not only determine the fate of the islands but also shape the geopolitical and environmental landscape of the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh, situated in the epicenter of these developments, has both much to gain and much at stake.


The Coco Islands, though small in size, play an outsized role in the strategic and geopolitical equations of the Bay of Bengal. Their significance cannot be understated, particularly given the larger currents of change and contention shaping the waters of this region. As regional powers grapple for influence, these islands become a touchstone, a microcosm of broader geopolitical challenges and opportunities.

In such a volatile landscape, the path forward should be rooted in diplomatic dialogue and multilateral discussions. Unilateral actions, no matter the justifications behind them, risk exacerbating tensions and potentially leading to conflict. Given the intricate tapestry of interests, histories, and aspirations involved, cooperation and consensus-building become imperative.

For countries like Bangladesh, these islands and the surrounding waters represent both a promise and a predicament. The promise of economic opportunities, regional collaboration, and environmental stewardship; and the predicament of navigating the often conflicting ambitions of larger regional players.

The Coco Islands underscore the complexities of the Bay of Bengal and the pressing need for diplomatic avenues to be pursued vigorously. Only through constructive dialogue and mutual respect can peace and stability be ensured in this region, allowing for the shared prosperity of all its stakeholders. The islands, thus, are not just a piece of land surrounded by water; they symbolize the intricate dance of diplomacy, strategy, and hope in the face of ever-evolving geopolitical challenges.



[1] Manhas, N.S., 2020. China’s Policy of ‘String of Pearls’. International Journal of Social Impact, 5(3), pp.2455-2670.

[2] Hiep, T.X., Binh, N.T. and Bao, T.T., 2021. Chinese Factors in India Relationship with Myanmar in the Period 1992–2014. Journal of Educational and Social Research, 11(1).

[3] Pranay, V.K., 2017. Strategic Salience of Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Economic and Military Dimensions.

[4] Kumar, A., India-Myanmar Relations: A Strategic Analysis. Himachal Pradesh University Journal, p.71.

[5] Lintner, B., 2023. What Is China Really Up to in the Coco Islands?. Global Asia, 18(2), pp.72-77.

[6] Ashraf, J., 2017. String of Pearls and China’s emerging strategic culture. Strategic Studies, 37(4), pp.166-181.

[7] Ahmed, M.H. and Rahman, M.M., 2020, February. An assessment of the blue economy opportunities of Bangladesh within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 7th International Conference on Public Administration and Development (pp. 5-8).

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