Is There A Threat From The String of Pearls?

Photo source: Indian Express

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

For quite some time, China has been in the quest for political, military and economic espionage. This has been done through a network of installations known as the ‘String of Pearls’. 

It is aimed to project a dominating presence in littoral South Asia. One of such aims exhibited by the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy is the marine time dominance.

By embarking on this approach, China wants to counter other superpowers such as the United States. There are some who support China’s geopolitical rise against American hegemony for a needful balance of power. In fact, what China wants to do, has been already done in the past by the British, Portuguese, Dutch and Spaniards, during the colonial times. 

Indian strategists fear that Chinese economic buildup due to the advent of ports in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Sri Lankan government leased Hambantota port for a 99-year lease to the Chinese, where the latter agreed to pay $1.2 billion as a fee), or Gwadar in Pakistan, are makings of a string of pearls.

Factually, it was actually a report ‘Energy Futures in Asia: Final Report’, drafted in 2004, that made this model popular. According to the String of Pearls strategy, it refers to a control in the Strait of Malacca, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, the Strait of Hormuz, Somalia including Bangladesh and Myanmar.

An American consultancy firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, published a report ‘Energy Futures in Asia’, where it predicted that China would expand its naval base throughout Indian Ocean Region (IOR), by building civilian marine time infrastructure in the near future.

Many observers have pointed out that Chinese activities have intensified in the Arabian Sea lately. China seems to have a plan to outstretch from Southern part to East Africa. In the South China Sea itself, it is operating with several of its military installations and naval ships.

Apart from ‘String of Pearls' strategic model, China uses the ‘Pit Stop model’, ‘Lean Colonial model’, ‘Dual Use Logistics Facility’, ‘Warehouse Model’ and ‘Model USA’. These models act against China’s principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. Whereas ‘Dual Use Logistics Facility’ model and ‘String of Pearls’ model’ are strategically similar, the other models allow placing of military troops in other countries.

According to an article in The Diplomat written by Jack Detsch, the rivalry between China and India in the Indian Ocean threatens peace in the region, with large investments in ports, docks and trans-shipment facilities along the basin. In fact, it is  a route through which 70 per cent of world’s oil travels.

For certain political and economic advantages, China has developed ties with Bangladesh through investments in Chittagong Basin and Cox’s Bazaar. Having ports in Bangladesh means that China has a strategic access in the Bay of Bengal, India’s backyard. The Chinese also opened a port in Djibouti in 2017, which can host around 10,000 troops.

To counter this move, India has requested access for French ports in Djibouti in the past. India signed an agreement for a new base in Seychelles and requested access in ports in Oman. A pact on it was actually signed in Singapore in 2017. 

Furthermore, India wants to further expand its bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the end of Malacca Strait, for its fight for survival in the waters of Southeast Asia. This policy is called Act East, by improving ties with Vietnam and Japan. Act East policy has been received with praise from Washington DC. In return – Washington calls for a ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’, and it reflects a sort of competitive turbulence in these troubled waters of trade.

Through its Belt and Road initiative, China wants to make inroads in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese also might be interested in securing more routes in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca, although none of these two ideas have been drafted on paper yet.  Although, as per ‘China 2015 Defence White Paper’, the plan seems to move from ‘offshore waters defence’ to ‘open seas protection.’

These aggressive stances are prompting India to buy more submarines. It spent $8.1 billion to purchase six diesel-electric submarines. Sittwe, Myanmar’s busiest port, received a $100 million aid from the Indian Government. It is part of the larger Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit project. Currently, India claims to control marine time in the Strait of Malacca. As a result, India is planning to make its own ‘String of Pearls’ from Madagascar, via Djibouti, Oman and Seychelles, all the way to Singapore.

However, there are several analysts who argue that ‘Dual Use Logistics Facility’ is more appropriate for the Chinese to pursue at this moment in time. It will help China to operate in a ‘restrictive political and economic environment’. It will include provisions of medical support, ship and equipment repair, communications support and ammunition storage. Political analysts believe that Karachi would be a base for such operations. In addition to that, the Chinese state can conduct combatant evacuation operations of Chinese citizens, including humanitarian assistance, relief operations and other economic interests.

Dr Christopher D Yung, a research fellow at Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) believes that ‘Dual Use Logistics Facility’ seems palatable to the Chinese because this model will work without imposing a threat to the United States, which pursues global military dominance. 

Having said that, it is impossible for China to pursue ‘String of Pearls’ approach in the Indian Ocean, as long as it builds more robust logistics infrastructure to support a military force, as there is a need of a large naval and air force, focusing on military combat operations.

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