June 05, 2009

The Pearls and String of the Theory

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation
Aurobinda MAHAPATRA (India)

One of the noted Indian national dailies recently in its editorial on 22 May 2009, while outlining the possible policy options before the newly formed Indian government, articulated the concerns of a section of Indian policy makers about the rising clout of China in India’s neighbourhood. While pointing out Chinese initiated string of pearls strategy, the editorial observed that from a medium to long-term perspective the China question is likely to be an important part of the government’s action plan.

During the recent ongoing war between Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army, the weapons from other countries including China that helped Sri Lanka win over the tigers. India’s refusal to give weapons to Sri Lanka had moved the beleaguered nation to opt for China and Pakistan, which were eager to offer arms. The increasing relationship earned China the opportunity to develop the southern Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. While Indian policy makers did not openly comment on this development, it appears Indian establishment has factored this and related developments in the policy projections for the future.

This Chinese string of pearls strategy is the latest in a series of strategies China initiated in the post-cold war world to build its international stature. Let us take into account the following developments over the last decade. In 2002, China started developing Gwader port of Pakistan and established a naval base there. It has invested four times more than Pakistan in developing this port. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visited Pakistan in August 2005 to commemorate the completion of first phase of the port, not far from the straits of Hormuz at the throat of the Persian Gulf. Below in the Indian Ocean, as mentioned, it is developing the Hambantota port. The Chinese President Hu Jintao made a whirlwind tour to Saudi Arabia and four African states Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Mauritius in February 2009 to boost relations. With the Indian Ocean state of Mauritius he signed deals worth more than 270 million dollars to fund infrastructure projects. In the Bay of Bengal China has developed a container shipping facility at Chittagong port in Bangladesh. It has also developed a deep water port at Sittwe of Myanmar and established a base in Coco Island (not far from the Indian island of Andaman and Nicobar). It has developed an upgraded airstrip at Woody Island off the coast of Vietnam at 300 nautical miles and established a submarine base in Hainan Island in South China Sea. Connecting all these points or the ‘pearls’ is the string that the Chinese policy makers have in mind which can enhance its interests in the region.

The concept ‘string of pearls’ first found mention in a report titled ‘Energy Futures in Asia’ commissioned by the US Department of Defence in 2005. This strategy of string of pearls is a recent strategy, which China has pursued vigorously. The question then arises-what does exactly explain the Chinese vigour in pursuing a strategy which would enable it to stretch its bases from the South China Sea through Malacca straits to Bay of Bengal, thence further through the Indian Ocean towards Arabian Sea which touches West Asia?

Three factors explain this policy of China. First, China is interested to ensure energy security. China one of the fastest growing economies in the world is going to be the highest consumer of energy in coming years. For this, it needs to have secure routes in blue waters to enhance its oil accessibility in the countries in Arab and in Africa. Second, probably it is more of strategic and geopolitical interests. In the emerging world order, when the US influence appears to be in a decline mode, China intends to rise as a super power, to have its policies as guiding principles in international politics for which it needs to have control over major sea routes and presence in far off places. Third, and related, China has been apprehensive of threats to its territorial sovereignty and integrity. Whether it is the issue of Taiwan, or Xinjiang or Tibet, China in its defence white paper of 2008 has made it clear that it would not tolerate any move which threaten its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

India’s troubled relationship with China and their differences of interests in the countries of South and Southeast Asia, China’s friendly relations with Pakistan and its building of Karakoram highway in the Kashmir region to Gwader port have shaped the relations and raised apprehensions in policy quarters of India. Some sections in Indian strategic thinking has expressed believe that the string of pearls theory is a means adopted by China to encircle India by controlling the levers of powers in surrounding seas and Indian Ocean.

Whatever may be the implications of string of pearls theory, China like other powers can adopt policies to secure energy, thwart attempts which threaten its integrity and protect and enhance its national interests. China has already stated on many occasions that its moves have aimed at peaceful realisation of its interests. In April 2009 while speaking before the delegations from the naval fleets of 14 nations at the Chinese port of Qingdao, Hu Jintao assured China ‘would never seek hegemony, nor would it turn to arms races with other nations.’

The vigorous pursuit of string of pearls strategy has no doubt increased China’s clout in international affairs, at which various powers have expressed concerns. The US policy makers have taken this development into account while making policy postures towards Asia. Australia in its white paper released in May 2009 has expressed concern at the military programmes of China. However, the string theory may be taken as a policy measure which is non-antagonistic in its ambitions so far China, as Hu Jintao spoke to the delegates mentioned earlier, pursues policies of ‘harmonious seas’. India can do well to reenergise its strategy in the surrounding seas and ocean to protect and promote its national interests. It is on the balance or imbalance of diverse national interests in the blue waters of Asia the future of the string of pearls theory as well as the future course of international politics will depend a lot.

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