Sunday, June 10, 2012

China's Indian Ocean Strategy: A String of Pearls

For China, the Indian Ocean is of vital national interest.  A vast amount of the energy and natural resources China imports from the Middle East, Africa, and Australia travel over the Ocean’s waters, as do the goods produced in China’s “workshop of the world” factory base.  Moreover, the Eurasian states littoral to the Ocean’s northern reaches, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, are booming economies with huge resource and population bases, as well as dangerous military powers (with nuclear weapons in the case of Pakistan and India). 

Historically, the seaborne shipping journey has had two chokepoints—the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia.  For China, the route between these points is known as its Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC) in the parlance of U.S. military planners.  As it stands today, and as it has stood since the days of the British Empire, the Anglo-American alliance has put great effort into militarily securing these chokepoints, and forming security agreements with the large powers of the region.  The U.S.-India military relationship grew very close after 9/11, and Washington even de facto recognized India’s nuclear weapons capability, which India had flouted the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to achieve.  Australia and Indonesia have both been longtime partners in U.S. post-World War II foreign policy (and hosts to U.S. military bases), as has Pakistan, although that relationship in beginning to sour.  Thailand, which was a vital American ally during the Vietnam War, has also once again grown close to U.S. planners.  The military nerve center of this operation is the secretive Diego Garcia Naval Station, a colonial leftover in Britain’s “Indian Ocean Territory” located at the southern tip of the Chagos Archipelago.

In the face of this militarization, China has embarked on its own strategy, of constructing highly developed ports in key strategic locations along the Ocean’s littoral.  This strategy was referred to as building a “String of Pearls” in a 2004 Pentagon commissioned report by military contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, and the name has stuck.[1]  One such “pearl” is a major port located in Gwadahar, in Pakistan’s Baluch region on the Arabian Sea.  Traveling southeast along the shipping route, the next strategic pearl is located at Hambantota, on the island of Sri Lanka.  Another, a container shipping facility, is located at Chittagong, Bangladesh’s main port.  Over the past decade, Myanmar has also moved very close to Beijing, and key Chinese energy, military, and shipping facilities are located all along Myanmar’s dangling coastline.  These include a deepwater port at Sitwe, a large oil facility at the offshore Shwe fields, and a base at Coco Island supposedly used for electronic espionage.  The Myanmar infrastructure projects are supplemented by China’s Irawaddy transportation corridor, currently under construction which features duel oil and gas pipelines and a high-speed rail line running North to China’s Yunann province.  Perhaps China’s most audacious proposal is to build the Kra canal across Thailand’s southern isthmus, connecting the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and bypassing the Straits of Malacca all together.[2]  A string of ports and airstrips has also been developed in the South China Sea, all the way up to Hong Kong.

Ostensibly, these ports are purely for civilian use, as the Chinese military has no overt foreign bases, but states like Myanmar have large military-to-military programs with the Chinese.  This has led China’s geopolitical rivals, namely the U.S. and India, to fear that the Chinese pearls will be militarized and turned into bases for the growing Chinese Navy.  Chinese high-speed rail tracks also pose a threat in this regard, as it is easy to imagine them being used for troop transport in a crisis.  This militarization, however is not yet a reality and is far from becoming one, as pointed out in a report by Foreign Policy in Focus.[3] 

[1] “China Builds Up Strategic Sea Lanes,” The Washington Times, 1/17/05. (
[2] “The New Silk Road: China’s Energy Strategy in the Greater Middle East,” Christine Lin, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Policy Focus #109, April 2011, pg. 11.
[3] “Is China’s String of Pearls Real?,” Vivian Yang, Foreign Policy in Focus, 7/18/11. (  

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