October 31, 2009

Part 2. Chinese String of Pearls Stratergy

China’s “string of pearls” strategy appears to be taking another step forward as Beijing increases ties with the Sri Lankan government. The strategy, which was the subject of a 2005 U.S. China Commission report to Congress, 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.

To date, China’s investments extend from Hainan Island in the South China Sea, through the littorals of the Straits of Malacca, including port developments in Chittagong in Bangladesh; Sittwe, Coco, Hianggyi, Khaukphyu, Mergui and Zadetkyi Kyun in Myanmar; Laem Chabang in Thailand; and Sihanoukville in Cambodia. They extend across the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, and in islands within the Arabian Sea and into the Persian Gulf.

Not surprisingly, both the U.S. and Indian governments are concerned, part of these developments include the upgrading of airstrips, many supported with military facilities, such as the facility on Woody Island, close to Vietnam. These developments mean that the balance of power within the Indian and Arabian Gulf has now shifted away from the traditional Indian government management, backed up with U.S. military strength, but to China, backed up with regional diplomatic ties that dispense with the need to engage with either power.
The strategy has been developed partially in response to a lack of progress on the Kra Canal Project in Thailand, which would directly link the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. The “string of pearls” strategy however provides a forward presence for China along the sea lines of communication that now anchor China directly to the Middle East. The question both the United States and India have is whether this strategy is intended purely to cement supply lines and trade routes, or whether China will later use these in a bid to enforce regional supremacy.

India has not been an innocent party to the development of the “string of pearls.” Somewhat foolishly, it threatened to cut off China’s choke point for oil and trade – the Malacca Straits – in both 1971 and 1999, when it moved to blockade Karachi Port which at the time handled 90 percent of Pakistan’s sea trade, including oil supplies to China. India has also recently attempted to persuade the Sri Lankan government not to permit Chinese development of the country’s Hambantota Port, a project that is now well underway. Chinese investment in Sri Lanka is also likely to significantly increase given the likely conclusion of the civil war, and Chinese interests in drilling for oil off the coast of Northeast Sri Lanka.

As America’s influence in the region wanes, China’s strategy appears to be conservatively supported by other Southeast Asian nations, with the potential exception of India. Pro-U.S. nations such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines find it in their own self interests to improve and develop ties with China, while nations such as Pakistan, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia are all strong allies of Beijing. The growing perception is that a peaceful region does not now necessarily require a U.S. military presence.

Concerns remain however. Chinese fishing trawlers have been uncovered mapping the ocean floor to facilitate submarine operations, and disputes over territorial waters are increasing as the recent standoff between an American survey ship and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea demonstrates. The United States insists it was operating in international waters, the Chinese claim the incident occurred within their exclusive economic zone.
India feels threatened by the perception of a China increasingly encircling the country, with Tibet to the north, a China supported Myanmar regime to the east, an increasingly China-dependent Bangladesh beginning to emerge, and the long standing support China has shown for Pakistan. Given India’s own huge security problems with Pakistan it is unlikely, unless they can influence Sri Lanka, that the Indian government will be able to do much about the development of China’s interest within the region.

As long as Chinese interests remain benign, the “string of pearls” strategy remains the strongest pointer yet that China is both anchoring its energy supply lines with the Middle East and embarking on a level of Southeast Asian trade – and the development of regional prosperity that will come with it – on a scale never seen before. If the strategy continues without the development of regional conflicts, the ASEAN trading bloc, with China at its heart, and the massive emerging markets of India and the other Southeast Asian nations close by, will develop and begin to rival that of the EU and the United States, and lessen China’s dependence on these traditional export markets.
China is strengthening diplomatic ties and building naval bases along the sea lanes from the Middle East. This “String of Pearls” strategy is designed to protect its energy security, negate US influence in the region, and project power overseas.Each “pearl” in the “String of Pearls” is a nexus of Chinese geopolitical influence or military presence.4 Hainan Island, with recently upgraded military facilities, is a “pearl.”
An upgraded airstrip on Woody Island, located in the Paracel archipelago 300 nautical miles east of Vietnam, is a “pearl.” Acontainer shipping facility in Chittagong, Bangladesh, is a “pearl.” Construction of a deep water portin Sittwe, Myanmar, is a “pearl,” as is the construction of a navy base in Gwadar, Pakistan.5 Port and airfield construction projects, diplomatic ties, and force modernization form the essence of China’s “String of Pearls.” The “pearls” extend from the coast of mainland China through the littorals of theSouth China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the littorals of the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. China is building strategic relationships and developing a capability to establish a forward presence along the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that connect China to the Middle East.
The Nature of the Pearls. China’s development of these strategic geopolitical “pearls” has beennonconfrontational, with no evidence of imperial or neocolonial ambition. The development of the “String of Pearls” may not, in fact, be a strategy explicitly guided by China’s central government. Rather, it may be a convenient label applied by some in the United States to describe an element of China’s foreign policy. Washington’s perception of China’s de facto strategy may not be a view sharedin Beijing, but the fact remains that economic benefits and diplomatic rhetoric have been an enticement for countries to facilitate China’s strategic ambitions in the region.
(see gwadar related article)
The port facility at Gwadar, for example, is a win-win prospect for both China and Pakistan. The port at Karachi currently handles 90 percent of Pakistan’s sea-borne trade, but because of its proximity to India, it is extremely vulnerable to blockade. This happened during the India-Pakistan War of 1971 and was threatened again during the Kargil conflict of 1999.6 Gwadar, a small fishing village which Pakistan identified as a potential port location in 1964 but lacked the means to develop, is 450 miles west of Karachi.7 A modern port at Gwadar would enhance Pakistan’s strategic depth along its coastline with respect to India. For China,the strategic value of Gwadar is its 240-mile distance from the Strait of Hormuz. China is facilitatingdevelopment of Gwadar and paving the way for future access by funding a majority of the $1.2 billionproject and providing the technical expertise of hundreds of engineers.8 Since construction began in2002, China has invested four times more than Pakistan and contributed an additional $200 milliontowards the building of a highway to connect Gwadar with Karachi. In August 2005, Chinese PremierWen Jiabao visited Pakistan to commemorate completion of the first phase of the Gwadar project andthe opening of the first 3 of 12 multiship berths.9The Gwadar project has enhanced the strategic, diplomatic, and economic ties between Pakistanand China. Other countries are benefiting from China’s new strategy, as well.
In November 2003, Chinasigned an agreement with Cambodia to provide military equipment and training in exchange for theright of way to build a rail line from southern China to the Gulf of Thailand.10 China also has anambitious $20 billion proposal to build a canal across Thailand’s Kra Isthmus which would enableships to bypass the chokepoint at the Strait of Malacca.11 Although this plan is stalled due to Thailand’snoncommittal position and political opposition in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, it reveals thescope and scale of Chinese ambition for the “String of Pearls.”

Sidharth K Menon
Defence and Intelligence Analyst.