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Unraveling China’s “String of Pearls”

Reports that Pakistan invited China to construct a naval base in Gwadar have reignited concerns about Beijing’s strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean. For many China-watchers, the militarization of this commercial port – just 500 kilometers from the Strait of Hormuz – would confirm longstanding anxieties about Beijing’s so-called “string of pearls” strategy. Yet there are few reasons to fear China’s strategic weight in the Indian Ocean, explains Ashley S. Townshend, research associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney. The ports are, as China contends, conventional shipping facilities to connect landlocked Chinese provinces with trade routes. Transforming the commercial ports into military bases would not only require extensive fortification but also convincing host countries to upend a geopolitical strategy balancing interests of China, the US and India. The ports have long-term strategic value, but Townshend concludes that it’s in the interest of all, including China, to minimize conflicts in the Indian Ocean and keep trade routes open. – YaleGlobal

Unraveling China’s “String of Pearls”

Chinese-built ports in Gwadar, Colombo or Chittagong have commercial value, but pose no threat
Ashley S. Townshend
YaleGlobal, 16 September 2011
Gwadar dreaming: Chinese-built Port of Gwadar in Pakistan awaits ship arrivals; Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, left, in Beijing seeks help from Chinese President Hu Jintao

SYDNEY: With the US and the western world mired in debt crisis, the rise of China’s military appears more threatening than ever. The recent launch of China’s first aircraft carrier will only add to regional anxieties over the military challenge emanating from Asia’s fastest rising giant. But a closer examination shows that at least one aspect of China’s supposed military prowess – its alleged creation of far-ranging naval facilities, the so-called “string of pearls” strategy – can be discounted as more fevered imagination than actual military threat.

Coined in a classified 2005 Booz-Allen report, the shibboleth is widely used to describe China’s purported plan to establish naval bases and intelligence stations throughout littoral South Asia. Adherents to this perspective argue that Beijing has spent the past decade trying to forge closer diplomatic relations with many Indian Ocean nations. China has signed multimillion dollar aid, trade and defense deals in capitals across the region, while Chinese state-owned corporations have financed commercial ports in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota and Colombo), Bangladesh (Chittagong) and Burma (Sittwe and Kyaukpyu). Viewed alongside the large-scale naval modernization program being undertaken by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) many worry that these ostensibly trade-oriented ports will one day be upgraded into permanent naval bases. In a worst-case scenario, it’s feared such bases might enable Beijing to threaten India’s security, menace global sea lanes and challenge the United States for regional naval primacy.

This assessment is greatly exaggerated, and there are many reasons to be skeptical about a Chinese “string of pearls.”

China’s “pearls” appear to be what Beijing says they are: conventional shipping facilities.

Crucially, there’s no evidence to suggest the PLAN is involved with these ports. Nor is there any proof to support claims that “listening posts” and “monitoring stations” have been hidden amidst the cranes. On the contrary, China’s “pearls” appear to be what Beijing says they are: conventional shipping facilities designed to connect China’s landlocked western provinces to maritime trade routes in the Indian Ocean.

This doesn’t mean they lack strategic value. The South Asian harbors and their overland conduits to China will permit some Chinese-bound tankers to offload Persian Gulf oil without having to sail all the way to East Asian waters. Such arrangements will reduce China’s dependence on precarious shipping routes through the Malacca Strait “chokepoint,” where Beijing fears that its tankers could be blockaded by US warships already deployed to the region. In the name of energy security, such facilities offer a degree of flexibility for China’s otherwise vulnerable Indian Ocean supply-lines – across which roughly 80 percent of Beijing’s imported crude must travel each year en route to the mainland.   

Even if China’s leaders were contemplating militarizing these “pearls,” there are serious doubts about the feasibility of such a scheme.

Diplomatically, Beijing would find it difficult to convince its South Asian counterparts that hosting PLAN bases is in their best interests. As “swing players” in an emerging Indo-Pacific “great game,” the littoral states of the Indian Ocean stand to gain more by oscillating between Beijing, New Delhi and Washington than by aligning with any one of the three. Indeed, Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad and Rangoon already enjoy lucrative economic and military relations with two or more of Asia’s competing great powers – often leveraging their financiers’ strategic anxieties to advance their own national objectives. Whatever sweeteners China might offer, it’s hard to imagine that any South Asian regime would jeopardize this geopolitical flexibility for a PLAN pied-à-terre and political blessing from Beijing. While some, notably Pakistan, may be tempted to provide berthing rights to PLAN warships, such moves would fall short of granting China sovereign bases abroad.  

Beijing would find it difficult to convince
its South Asian counterparts that hosting bases is in
their best interests.

Establishing a “string of pearls” would face serious practical obstacles. Transforming commercial ports into defendable forward bases requires high levels of technical, logistical and strategic expertise. Despite the PLAN’s growing proficiency, the demands of this Mahanian task would probably exceed China’s capabilities for at least another decade. The PLAN has little experience in force projection, joint operations or sophisticated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It would be hard pressed to fortify distant bases with local air defenses, mine-clearing assets or munitions storage facilities, and is likely to be handicapped by its inflexible command structure. As such, the PLAN would find it almost impossible to defend isolated naval bases from cruise-missile strikes or airborne attacks by potential US or Indian adversaries. While such kinetic scenarios seem highly unlikely, they still beg the question: Why would China invest billions in South Asian bases that would be impotent during wartime?

The answer, many argue, is that Beijing’s base-building ambitions are largely defensive in nature – designed to offset China’s sea-lane vulnerabilities by deploying PLAN assets to challenge rivals’ sea lanes. Acutely aware of the strangulation threat Indian and US forces pose to Beijing’s Indo-Pacific energy supply lines, some Chinese strategists have advocated offshore naval bases as a means of protecting China’s economic interests overseas. As forward bases would permit Chinese warships to wield some “tit-for-tat” coercive power over Indian and American vessels, Beijing’s modest objective would be to project limited sea power for deterrence – not to position the PLAN for great power confrontations.

Yet China is unlikely to achieve even this limited goal. As the prevailing Indian Ocean power balance is tilted in favor of Washington and New Delhi, Beijing’s capacity to influence international sea lanes remains grossly inferior. While India and the US boast multiple carrier strike-groups, nuclear submarines and experienced blue-water fleets – supported by US bases in Bahrain and Diego Garcia – China’s nascent navy is only beginning to project power abroad. Even if PLAN warships were one day able to contest Indian Ocean sea lanes, the US Fifth Fleet would still hold a geopolitical advantage – exercising, as it does, near-total control over access to the Persian Gulf source of China’s hydrocarbon lifeline.

But what about three decades from now? Might a militarized “string of pearls” form part of a longer-term strategy to project Chinese strategic weight west of Malacca?

Chinese leaders are reticent to continue outsourcing their nation’s sea-lane security to US and Indian flotillas.

While current geopolitical and military obstacles appear unlikely to be overcome any time soon, it’s true that Beijing’s Indian Ocean objectives are not purely commercial. Chinese leaders are reticent to continue outsourcing their nation’s sea-lane security to US and Indian flotillas. As concerns about energy security intensify, Beijing will almost certainly seek a more permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean. At a minimum, this will require access to deep-water ports for PLAN vessels to rest, refuel and possibly refit. This could, of course, be achieved by negotiating long-term berthing arrangements at various South Asian ports. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the strategic advantages of full-fledged naval bases. In the future, a stronger China may well make this calculation – motivated perhaps by growing strategic anxieties or a bellicose turn in its foreign policy. While Beijing’s proclivity for financing commercial ports does not necessarily portend this worrisome future, China’s stake in well-situated South Asian harbors offers a number of ship-ready options for eventual expansion.

Whatever naval facilities are developed over time, it’s difficult to envisage a scenario in which Beijing would be willing to undermine maritime security in the Indian Ocean. China is destined to face mounting energy demands, compelling it to acquire new resources, trade routes and the means to defend both. Dependence on seaborne energy supplies is likely to instill in Beijing – like the US, India and other maritime powers – a powerful incentive for stability at sea. While the myth of a Chinese “string of pearls” will continue to trouble US and Indian analysts, it’s important to recall that all Indo-Pacific states depend on unfettered Indian Ocean trade. Asia’s greatest challenge is not to position naval forces in preparation for conflict, but to defuse maritime tensions for the sake of regional order.


Ashley S. Townshend is a research associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, and a former visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

27 September 2011
I assume you've 'done your homework' and accept that the bases now only serve China's capitalist system -- but surely they could be converted to intelligence or military transport use with great ease in little time. Yes?
-Owen , Sacramento, California
21 September 2011
how can i say this china stil have that feeling to expand not only in busnis but olso in militer few.
they are stil years and years behind the western world .in that way .
Some people have a dangers mind in china .
And we as westen world just look and olso help them .
how is china rise so fast in the past. how stupid we are .
they make money with selling stuf to us and they have jobs for that
and what they do with the money invest more in militer ( new carrier)
in the mean wil so may people are so pore ther .
democartie they dont have that
freedom of speech dont think so
and stil here in europa we keep inporten things from them .
how stupid is that?
people dont know it yet but they have the hole world at ther balls.
economie-militer- and specili the faths that nobody care except them
how the hell is it so far.
we all talk in europa freedom of speech human rights democratsi
but when we see $ it is all over .
thit whas just my 50 cent greetings
we all belong to the spicies human 1 day we going have recret about it that we not thin this before.
look to the sky that is the futher ( and not making new carrier)
-peter , europa
18 September 2011
It would be interesting for Indians to look back in 10 years and realize that no one had attacked them in the Indian ocean while they had spent the whole decade worrying to a great deal of silver hair, killing lots of what is not much of the grey stuff to start with underneath, spending a fortune purchasing defective and out-of-date military hardware from Russia and Europe at the expense of their civilian and military industries and the millions of poor whose children seldom grow beyond the 5th anniversary.
In the meantime, Pakistan, Burma, and China ha d prospered through the considerably shortened trade routes for the land locked provinces with the seaports, high speed trains, and immense pipelines.
Nevertheless it is the Indian money and starving folks. I guess we do not need to care despite the sympathy.
-Huyu , Beijing
17 September 2011
We should take the article's argument with a grain of salt. As matter of fact, China seeks for strategic millitary and values in the Indian ocean ports as well as the bay of bangal's ports. There is no reason to think, logically, China can run a pipeline, bound china's western provinces the whole way through hostile areas and india from Gwadar-Pakistan, to carry crude oil. However the article's china's economic motive hypothesis may hold true ONLY for Burma's port facilities in the bay of bangal and to some extent Bangladesh.
The reality is China's naval military capability has been expanding. It shifts the geo-economic and geopolitic balance in the region. Every single country across the region will react based on its aggregate capability. Certainly it does mean a multiratural, unified cooperation across South and SE aisa.
-Shahab Sabahi , Thailand
17 September 2011
-hector , singapore
16 September 2011
Um! During the pre-WW-II period there were admirers of Uncle Joe(seph Stalin) who kissed babies whenever he went around, then came the great leader Chairman Mao before he sent PLA to liberate Tibet, now we have courtier-scholars who get special research grants (studies for history ,culture and Confucius and to kowtow to the great communist leaders of China devoted to peace.
Do I remember correctly, it was China who wanted to sell arms to Mugabe, Pak dictators, Burmese generals then now Libya's colonel Quadafi, who crushed the skulls of Chinese 'rebels' in Tinanmen Square and decimated Tibeten monks !
-Kamath , Canada