April 01, 2007

China : “String of Pearls” Strategy

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 port
in 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 the
South 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 been
nonconfrontational, 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 shared
in 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. 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 billion
project and providing the technical expertise of hundreds of engineers.8 Since construction began in
2002, China has invested four times more than Pakistan and contributed an additional $200 million
towards the building of a highway to connect Gwadar with Karachi. In August 2005, Chinese Premier
Wen Jiabao visited Pakistan to commemorate completion of the first phase of the Gwadar project and
the opening of the first 3 of 12 multiship berths.9
The Gwadar project has enhanced the strategic, diplomatic, and economic ties between Pakistan
and China. Other countries are benefiting from China’s new strategy, as well. In November 2003, China
signed an agreement with Cambodia to provide military equipment and training in exchange for the
right of way to build a rail line from southern China to the Gulf of Thailand.10 China also has an
ambitious $20 billion proposal to build a canal across Thailand’s Kra Isthmus which would enable
ships to bypass the chokepoint at the Strait of Malacca.11 Although this plan is stalled due to Thailand’s
noncommittal position and political opposition in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, it reveals the
scope and scale of Chinese ambition for the “String of Pearls.”

string of Pearls:meeting the challenge of china’s rising power across the asian littoral


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