And is it, as it currently exists, a threat to India?
The phrase is meant to denote a series of bases stretching from Sudan in Africa, under the subcontinent, and continuing on to mainland China. These bases are thought to threaten to contain Indian naval aspirations and provide the People’s Liberation Army Navy with staging points for operations in the Indian ocean. The term has been in the news these past days due to the transfer of management of the Pakistani port of Gwadar to the innocuously named Overseas Port Holdings Ltd., a Chinese state owned enterprise. The Chinese “bases” thought to threaten India are located in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Bangladesh (Chittagong), and Myanmar (Kyaukpyu Y Sittwe). Upon cursory examination one could be forgiven for thinking that China has successfully encircled India. A closer examination of these bases, and the cost of using them to project hard power, gives lie to this interpretation.
These “bases” are really nothing of the sort, at least not in the way Americans tend to envision such things. Say “base” to an American and they will likely think of a leased area in a foreign state where their government exercises extraterritorial jurisdiction and has basing rights. Something along the lines of the bases at Guantanamo, Ramestein, and Futenma. This is not the form that China’s “pearls” have taken.
Gwadar is still simply a container port, one that is now operated by the Chinese government, but still just a container port. It cannot, at this time, service warships in a meaningful fashion. Furthermore, while Gwadar does have great strategic position, located at the entrance to the straights of Hormuz and with access to Somalia and Bab-el-Mandeb, it suffers because it is not well linked by either road or rail to the rest of Pakistan – thus making resupply of any base there rather complicated even in peacetime, much less during war. Moreover, the area in which it is located, Baluchistan, is beset by a persistent insurgency. Finally, the actual land on which it sits is shockingly exposed, an inverted “T” that juts into the ocean and leaves the ships based there vulnerable to both air and missile attack. Gwadar leaves a good deal to be desired as a military base.
Similar critiques can be made about most of the other “pearls” in the string. All of them are commercial in nature. Hambantota is a container port and oil refining and storage area. Chittagong is the main commercial port of Bangladesh. Kyaukpyu Y Sittwe is the Western terminus of a planned pipeline running from the bay of Bengal to China’s Western provinces. This is fitting with the posture of commercial expansion the PRC seems to have adopted for the near to mid term. The string of pearls at this present moment is a bid not for military dominance but for markets and influence in South Asia and access to resources (read: Oil) in Africa and the Middle East.
The threat posed by the string of pearls to India is no less real for all of this, it is simply not military in nature. Instead, the PRC is wielding economic might as a weapon. The threat is that India may soon look to its near abroad and find that the PRC has established itself as a benevolent hegemon in South Asia, supplying infrastructure durable goods, and expertise to the region in exchange for support for a Sino-centric Asian order.