What, exactly, is the string of pearls?

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.

2 Responses to “What, exactly, is the string of pearls?”

  1. Patrick McCleary says:

    It may still be too early to tell what the intent of China’s “string of pearls” strategy is. However, it is not too early to note India’s reaction to Chinese efforts. Particularly in the case of Gwadar, India sees China’s attempts to establish a presence in the Indian Ocean as more than just a commercial move. Time will tell what China is really pursuing: whether they are making a move towards peaceful economic hegemony or perhaps a more aggressive maritime containment strategy. But over the next few years, China has the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to regional peace, even in the face of expanding commercial activities and ports in the area. It must prove to India that it does not intend to make a maritime enemy out of its neighbor, because there are many in India who already think the opposite.


    Note – I couldn’t figure out how to embed the links within the post.

  2. Sean Rushlow says:

    Ultimately the Sri Lankan base, in the event of war, would be the lynchpin between the Pakistani base (the Pakistanis would likely be Chinese allies) and the eastern bases leading to China. Ultimately China is not well liked in many South Asian countries and India should launch its own counter chain of economic/pseudo-military bases against China. Vietnam and Taiwan and Nepal are all obvious starting points, given that Vietnam is also an ally of the USA and hates China for its continued attempts to bully India. Taiwan is not a friend of China and a combined Indian-American-Japanese presence near the Senkaku Islands forces China to realize it would be contending with enemies from all sides should it continue it’s aggression towards the Japanese. A Taiwanese base could also become a point from which India could threaten the Chinese attempts to secure the Spratley Islands from Vietnam. China has a vested interest in expanding its EEZ both for economic and military reasons, as the Chinese want to push American military power as far from the Chinese coast as possible through the acquisition of the Senkaku and Spratley islands, which would also have the effect of surrounding Taiwan with Chinese territorial waters, increasing the pressure on Taiwan to surrender and join China, further expanding Chinese territorial waters. By aiding Vietnam, Japan and the USA in denying the PRC access to this expanded territorial water area India will be effectively reducing China’s ability to act aggressively in the region due to the increased threat from the American navy. In addition due to the vested interest the Philippines have in the Spratley Islands and the Filipino fears of Chinese war against the Philippines the Indian government could secure yet another partner and base-area in its counter push against the Chinese. In addition to these states there is also a large Indian minority in Malaysia- this minority can be used to exert influence over Malaysia, perhaps by encouraging the Indians to break their traditional alliance with the Chinese minority and instead ally themselves with the Malay majority, effectively making Malaysia an Indian protectorate. Ultimately India should also deny the Chinese their attempts to gain a base in the Maldives and even further abroad should punish Chinese aggression in South Asia by encouraging the Indian minority in South Africa to pressure their government to give more preferential treatment to Indian businesses at the expense of Chinese businesses. The Indian minority in South Africa is long established and dwarfs the Chinese minority 3 to 1, as well as holding significant assets due to the middle position the Indian minority occupied in the old Apartheid racial hierarchy and the Indian minority’s subsequent alliance with the ANC during the late years of Apartheid. On the issue of energy resources the Indian government should encourage the American government to use its influence in Saudi Arabia to ensure India receives preferential treatment versus China when it comes to acquiring oil. Unfortunately the Iranians are already allied with the Russians and Chinese, but India joining America to support Saudi Arabia will provide a nice counter-balance in the Middle East. A strong friendship with the USA to acquire oil would also allow India a closer relationship with nations like Kuwait and Iraq, which are also allies of the USA. Indeed, with a strong Indian presence in the Middle East alongside the existing American presence the two powers could effectively force China to rely primarily on Iranian oil, making China at the mercy of the Iranians and through the Iranians the Russians on energy supplies.

Leave a Reply