In addition to an increasing energy reliance on the Middle East, China is also more and more heavily involved in trade, development and natural resource extraction with the Middle East and the African continent. The Indian Ocean lies in between: The Indian Ocean is the maritime organizing principle for a 21st century Eurasian world in which East Asia and the Middle East increasingly interact. In this vein, places like Gwadar, Hambantota and Kyaukpyu can become commercial throughput and warehousing facilities for products transiting between the Middle East and East Asia, of which China is the dominant nation. Strategically, it provides the equivalent of 19th century coaling stations for China's emerging commercial empire. Of course, empires are never declared: rather, as in the case of Great Britain and Venice, they gradually evolve over decades and centuries as a result of domestic dynamism, commercial opportunism and foreign necessity.
China realizes the use of these ports will always be dependent upon good political and economic relations with the host country, which is why China has been active on all economic and political fronts in helping Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and so on. Indeed, China may be Pakistan's most reliable political ally. Beijing also helped the Sri Lankan regime win a civil war against ethnic Tamil rebels. And China competes with India over aid to Bangladesh.
As for the use of these deep-water, state-of-the-art ports by Chinese warships, given China's close political and economic ties with these littoral states, as well as the political benefit that comes from helping to build and finance the ports themselves, it is only natural to expect that over the coming years and decades Chinese warships -- along with Chinese commercial vessels -- will pay port visits and use the bunkering facilities offered.
China certainly does not need to dominate the Western Pacific in order to have a naval presence in the Indian Ocean. There are already Chinese destroyers and supply vessels journeying to the Horn of Africa to fight piracy, and as China's power grows even more in waters closer by -- in the South and East China seas -- escalating operations into the Indian Ocean would only be natural.
China is expanding its fleet of nuclear as well as diesel-electric submarines. Nuclear warships -- because they don't have to be refueled and are limited only by the amount of food they can carry for their crews -- are exactly what a nation with blue-water, oceanic ambitions like China desires. Nobody I know in Washington expects the Chinese to dominate two oceans or even one, but quite a few foresee China as a significant naval power in both the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean as the decades advance, checked by the U.S. Navy and others in a complex, multipolar military environment.
China's commercial and strategic expansion into the Indian Ocean faces several hurdles -- sheer distance, local security problems, etc. But the most important hurdle is the internal stability of China itself. China's economy, already in trouble, could dramatically deteriorate to the point where China's one-party state, and the domestic cohesion it offers, might become undone. Were China to face serious and sustained unrest, its activities abroad would be compromised.
In the meantime, the port projects continue to progress. In Beijing, I was told that the whole concept of the string of pearls is only a matter of individual Chinese construction companies responding on their own to local opportunities offered in littoral countries. That is true, up to a point. But I was also told by Communist Party officials that China has a right to be in the Indian Ocean. As I said, the concept of the so-called string of pearls is true provided it is nuanced. The Chinese themselves may not have a fleshed-out game plan or grand strategy for the Indian Ocean. They are feeling their way forward, pushing up against constraints in the only way they know how. Thus, all one can do is point out trends as they emerge.