China's String of Pearls?

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The New York Times recently reported that China apparently has agreed to take over the operations of a $200 million port it built for Pakistan in Gwadar, on the Indian Ocean close to the Iranian border and close to the entrance to the Persian Gulf. We'll see if this actually happens. If it does, it will be geopolitically significant. To a greater degree than other Indian Ocean ports that China has either built, helped finance or upgraded, Gwadar is plagued by considerable security problems, as I found out during a visit there in 2008. It is in a remote region of Pakistan affected by Baloch separatism. And Baloch leaders I interviewed specifically threatened the building of a Chinese pipeline from Gwadar. Some years ago, China sat back and let a Singaporean firm run the new Gwadar port. At roughly the same time, Beijing shelved plans to build a nearby refinery. In 2011, when Pakistan publicly asked China to take over the port from the Singaporeans, China said no. China already has the Pakistani port of Karachi effectively for use, notes Indian analyst C. Raja Mohan. China has clearly been hedging its bets on Gwadar.

China's ostensible willingness to suddenly take the next step in Gwadar comes while the United States is in the process of pulling out of Afghanistan. Were Afghanistan to even partially stabilize following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, it would conceivably open up supply routes connecting Gwadar to Central Asia, and ultimately to China. This would ease China's so-called "Malacca dilemma," in which China is too dependent on the Strait of Malacca (and the nearby Lombok and Makassar straits) for the importation of hydrocarbons from the Middle East. China is already building roads and railways into Central Asia and has demonstrated, in its construction of parts of the Karakoram highway in southwestern China and northern Pakistan, its ability to surmount logistical obstacles. A spur road and pipeline from Gwadar would allow for the transfer of energy and other goods from the Middle East without having to rely on the Strait of Malacca. China would also be able to establish a listening post near the Persian Gulf were it to actually operate Gwadar.

China's Malacca dilemma will be further alleviated this summer when Beijing expects another port and pipeline complex it has built to be operational: one taking oil and natural gas from the Indian Ocean off the Myanmar coast and transporting it from Kyaukpyu in Rakhine state across north-central Myanmar into southern China's Yunnan province. Myanmar's ethnic unrest poses a security challenge to the Chinese pipeline, perhaps a reason why China is active in mediating disputes between the Myanmar regime and one of its disaffected ethnic armies.

Given all of these projects, it is a great age in history to be a Chinese civil engineer. I observed firsthand in 2009 the building of the massive Hambantota port complex by the Chinese in southern Sri Lanka, in the north-central Indian Ocean, which officially opened the following year. China, according to reports, is also involved in the building of a mooring container terminal and a nearby bridge in the Bangladeshi port city of Chittagong, while also reportedly aiding in the construction of a deep-water port on Bangladesh's Sonadia Island in the northeastern Indian Ocean. Furthermore, the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, among other sources, reports that China is a potential lead investor in a port and pipeline project to transport oil from southern Sudan to Lamu, on Kenya's northern coast, in the western Indian Ocean.

This array of Indian Ocean ports has been dubbed China's "string of pearls." Those skeptical of the concept have said that China has little desire or capacity to build naval bases in these places. But the string of pearls was never properly meant to imply naval bases per se. It is a far subtler concept, as I fully elaborated upon in my 2010 book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. In my reporting trips to Gwadar, Hambantota and other Indian Ocean ports where the Chinese have been active, I described a possible commercial, political, strategic and lastly military venture, the constituent elements of which cannot be disaggregated. To be sure, we live in a post-modern world of eroding distinctions: a world where coast guards sometimes act more aggressively than navies, where sea power is civilian as well as military, where access denial can be as relevant as the ability to engage in fleet-on-fleet battle and where the placement of warships is vital less for sea battles than for diplomatic ones.

China, moreover, has historic roots in the Indian Ocean going back to the Song and early Ming dynasties. In particular, the Chinese regime recently spent a considerable amount of money in a public relations campaign to resurrect the legacy of Ming Dynasty Adm. Zheng He, who plied the seas between China, the East Indies, Sri Lanka, the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa in the 15th century. Zheng He's route took him to all the places where China is now involved in port projects: It is the same route that ships must take to bring Middle Eastern hydrocarbons to China.

 


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.

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