A Primer on
China’s String of Pearls Strategy
How Pakistan is important to counter the Indian threat
China is increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean region over the past few years through its Strings of Pearls strategy. The strategy is driven by China’s need to secure foreign oil and trade routes critical to its development. This has meant establishing an increased level of influence along sea routes through investment, port development and diplomacy. According to a study by the Congressional Research Office in 2011, China might develop, or eventually might choose to construct, a network of Chinese military and commercial assets in the Indian Ocean to support Chinese naval operations along the Sea Lane of Communications (SLOCs) which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan. Ultimately, those ‘bases’ would be used to house Chinese military assets. However, the Chinese Communist Party insists that China’s burgeoning naval strategy is completely peaceful and is only intended to protect regional commercial interests.
String of Pearls theory refers to a maritime trade route for China that originates from the East China Sea, enters the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and provides further navigational trade feasibility to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. This maritime trade route engrosses strategically prevalent ports and chokepoints, also known as Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). Although, this notion was fabricated by Western scholars, it was never refuted by the Chinese government. The term was first used in ‘Energy Futures in Asia’ by US consultancy consortium Booz Allen Hamilton in 2004.
For the continuation of its commercial activities, trade navigation is indispensable for China’s rise through connecting feasibility from the South China Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. But, two historical events in the last century created a sense of insecurity among Chinese strategists and made them to look out for an interminable alternative route that could assure a smooth transportation of Chinese goods. The blocking of commercial activities by India in 1971 (Indo-Pak War) and 1999 (Kargil War) made Chinese policymakers to learn lessen and counter the proximity of India in the region that envisaged vicissitudes in the whole panorama. Their pursuit resulted in two developments; first, it led to a renewal of the String of Pearls and second initiation of a hunt to find a short and safe passage to continue its supply of commercial goods in the international market and the import of energy resources. Additionally, constant US-India military exercises exacerbated the situation. The trap of Indian naval bases and bilateral cantonments across the SLOCs in Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the neck of Malacca Strait accelerated the process to discover alternative routes that indirectly incepted ‘modification’ when China started establishing Gwadar port and Kyaupkyu port to bypass Malacca.
What are the Pearls?
In the String of Pearls, ‘pearls’ are basically the strategic points, straits or ports that have a tremendous geostrategic location in the IOR. They include the Strait of Malacca (which links the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal), Strait of Hormuz (which connects the Arabian Sea to Persian Gulf), and Strait of Mandeb (which provides a pathway to the Red Sea and further Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea. Every freighter that travels from Europe to East Asia and Southeast Asia has to pass through these littorals. The three passages have enormous commercial significance, especially for China to funnel its finished goods to the Middle East, Africa, West Asia and Europe—the main consumer markets—and, in return, China imports gas and oil from the Middle East to quench its industrial thirst. Chinese freighters have to cross the straits in both cases of imports and exports. Talking about commercial benefits for China, geo-strategists named the SLOCs ‘String of Pearls’ and China never disapproved of it.
Countering String of Pearls: India’s Necklace of Diamonds Strategy
According to the Indian intelligentsia, Chinese String of Pearls is supposed to encircle India strategically. They claim that Beijing has been reaching out to India’s neighbors on the premise of development and trade, allegedly recreating the Silk Route. From Nepal in the Southeast to Myanmar, Bangladesh to Sri Lanka in the South and Pakistan in the West, China plans to choke India’. Moreover, China is surrounding India through the initiation of mega infrastructural development, energy projects, financial grants and construction of corridors in South Asia, establishing ports across the SLOCs in its neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Maldives, and especially in Pakistan.
In a counter-action, India has started working on the ‘Necklace of Diamonds’ strategy. This strategy aims at garlanding China or in simple words, the counter encirclement strategy. India is expanding its naval bases and is also improving relations with strategically placed countries to counter China’s strategies. India has started building naval capacities at ports of Sabang Port in Indonesia, Duqm in Oman, Assumption Island in Seychelles, Chabahar in Iran and Changi in Singapore to counter encirclement of string of pearls.
Apart from getting direct access to the strategically placed naval bases, India is also developing new naval bases, developing the old bases and is enhancing relations with other nations to garland China. Currently, it is in the process of building new air corridors and bases in Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam and in Central Asia.
India has already old naval bases, Andaman Island, and the Nicobar Islands. At the same time, India has also signed an agreement with the Maldives and built a radar system for surveillance and monitoring. India also proposed some infrastructural and energy projects to enhance ties with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Vietnam. It is crystal clear that such strategic initiatives of India are to counter Chinese String of Pearls.
New Maritime Silk Road: The Renewed string of pearls
The philosophical triad propounded by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s ‘Dialect Method’ seems applicable in this India-China tussle also. It is an interpretive method in which the contradiction between a proposition (thesis) and its antithesis is resolved at a higher level of truth (synthesis). As, according to this notion, a thesis has antithesis, an antithesis triggers synthesis, similarly ‘String of Pearls’ and its counter, led by Indo-US alliance, through policy of ‘Countering String of Pearls’ gave birth to a new and modified String of Pearls. However, the questions that arise here are: what is the route of this renewed String of Pearls and how is it more comprehensive and secure for China? How is it different from an existing string of pearls? And what are the main littorals of the new String of Pearls?
Let’s find out the answers:
- Basically, the reinvigoration of Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) has revised the route of a present String of Pearls and drawn a new route with modification bringing some vicissitudes in IOR. The construction of two new ports under MSRI, Gwadar and Kyaupkyu, has changed the course especially Kyaupkyu which is going to bypass Strait of Malacca, the critical point between India and China. As mentioned earlier, India has naval bases in Andaman and Nicobar Islands adjacent to Strait of Malacca that can create a challenging situation for China. With the operationalization of renewed route, China will be able to overcome the precariousness of trade navigation. In the renewed Chinese String of Pearls, Kyaupkyu and Gwadar are the most strategically located pearls. It has both head and tail in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and connected to China through land corridors. Gwadar is connected to Kashgar (Xingjian province) through CPEC whereas Kyaupkyu is also linked through a road around 2400 km to Kunming (Yunan province of China) passing through Mandalay called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).
- China is also purchasing approximately 11.76 billion cubic feet gas annually from Myanmar that is passed through Thailand and then supplied to other parts of China for the smooth supply of gas. China invested more than $7.2 billion to build Kyaupkya Port and has 70-85% of the port’s stakes. China invested $2.7 billion to construct an industrial zone in Kyaupkyu and $1.5 billion to lay down oil pipeline from Kyaupkyu to Kunming. China’s strategic interest in Kyuapkyu and the construction of oil and gas pipeline is evident that it intends to bypass Malacca and reduce not only to dependency on it but also avoid adversaries like India and USA. Hence, Kyaupkyu is an important geostrategic pearl of ‘Renewed String of Pearl’.
- Another pivotal littoral of ‘Renewed String of Pearls’ is Gwadar port in Pakistan. China is investing approximately $62 billion under the umbrella of CPEC to construct Gwadar deep sea port to get access to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Several proposed mega projects are underway in Gwadar such as Special Economic Zones, international airport, housing societies, energy projects, and carriage terminals.
China has then approached Strait of Hormuz through Gwadar directly. Gwadar would be a hub of economic activities and would help to monitor and control shipments. The port has been given to China for 40 years initially. It can also serve as a naval base for China because Pakistan and India are strategic rivals, so Pakistan can serve China’s interests to counter India in the Arabian Sea. Other littorals of ‘Renewed String of Pearls’ are Chittagong (Bangladesh), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Marao (Maldives) and Lamu (Kenya) ports respectively.
Sri Lankan government officially handed over Hambantota port to China for 99 years in 2017 after ratifying a bilateral lease agreement.
Similarly, China is also investing in infrastructure and energy sector in the Maldives. It goes without saying that Maldives’ insolvency of 70 percent of debts made it more dependent on China. In fact, China is more interested to build Mario port and link it with Male.
In the Bay of Bengal, acquisition of Chittagong and especially Sonadia is another strategic achievement for China. Similarly, China intends to expand the China-Myanmar Corridor (CMC) to Bangladesh and Bangladesh predisposed positive gesture for investment in infrastructure and deep-sea port projects of $9 billion. Moreover, China has proposed other infrastructural energy projects to persuade Bangladesh by her side.
The last pearl is Lamu port of Kenya. Again, Dragon has stretched up to Africa to finance and build port along with initiation of huge projects. The establishment of this port is the crust of Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) which is being commissioned by China Communication Construction Company. Initially, work was started in 2016 is expected to be completed by the end of the ongoing year. Port will have 32 total berths while the first berth wa completed in 2018. China spent $480 million to construct the Lamu Port which can be another Gwadar for her in Africa.
Gwadar: Materializing the renewed ‘String Of Pearls’
The materializing of this ‘Renewed String of Pearls’ is actually the result of the revitalization of Maritime Silk Road Institution (MSRI) by China. It has been investing billions of dollars under this flagship project that will connect Asia with Africa, Europe, and within Asia Middle East, West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia. As a matter of fact, Asian ascendance in the 21st century can truly be cashed in on by China through the initiation of mega projects and exertion of soft power across the continents. The establishment of Gwadar, Kyaupkyu and Lamu through CPEC, CMC, and LAPSSET has paved the way for new navigational route in the IOR for China. Renewed Chinese String of Pearls is more useful, comprehensive and secure as compared to Allen’s perceived String of Pearls because every pearl of this renewed string is more precious for China; politically, economically and strategically.
China has picked the pearls and sewed it into ‘Renewed String of Pearls’ to bypass Malacca, baffle Indo-US military presence in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and guarded maritime route for navigation of goods across the mainland.
Gwadar port is the most precious pearl of this new string because of two reasons: first, it will enable China to counter India and gain an upper hand which previously India had; and second, it will become a hub of trans-regional connectivity. The presence of Pak-China navies in the Arabian Sea will create balance of power in the Indian Ocean that will help counter Indian aggressive moves as historically were undertaken by India when it threatened to block China’s trade navigation during wars in 1971 and 1999.
In new situation, if India threatens China to impose blockade in the Indian Ocean, the latter can tackle it in the Arabian Sea and Strait of Hormuz because Chinese have naval presence at Gwadar port. So, power equilibrium can be achieved in the IOR only with the establishment of Gwadar port. Third, Gwadar can be considered a monitoring or controlling point because of its strategic location. It will not only help China to import energy from the Middle East and further supply it to its mainland, but also keep its presence at a geostrategic region close to Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Sea. Similarly, China can export its finished goods through Gwadar to the Middle East, Europe, Africa and West Asia bypassing Strait of Malacca.
China has become an economic giant through peaceful means and it never indulged directly in international political conflicts. Nevertheless, with alternative routes and renewed String of Pearls, China will become a stakeholder in the IOR which will be top its great political advantage, yet most likely it will not challenge American supremacy in the region so as to provide a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Indeed, renewed ‘String of Pearls’ has economic benefits for China and other associated countries but at same time it would also place China political and strategic advantageous position in IOR. So in a few years from now, IOR would experience a new balance of power.