Last month The Economist ran a profile of China’s port-development projects around the world, concluding that Beijing’s “growing empire of ports abroad is mainly about trade, not aggression.” It pains me to quibble with my favorite publication, but this finding is a trifle misleading.
First, sea power isn’t an either/or proposition. Its mercantile and military components overlap and reinforce each other. Mahan discerns a symbiotic relationship between commercial and naval pursuits. Indeed, he pronounces the propensity to trade the chief trait qualifying a society for sea power. Forward bases are one of the struts on which seagoing enterprises rest. Not just men-of-war but merchantmen are part of the nautical ensemble. And so on.
By Mahanian logic, a seafaring people should do what China is doing, and what marine states like the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands once did. It will seek commercial, political, and military access to regions that are home to important export and import markets. What’s about trade today could be about aggression — or, if you prefer a less freighted term, naval power projection — tomorrow.
Second, the Economist writers conflate port development in the Indian Ocean with port development elsewhere around the globe. They evidently reason that if China’s access to, say, Piraeus, Greece, is innocuous, then its South Asian endeavors must be likewise harmless. That may or may not be true. Chinese energy interests in the greater Indian Ocean are far more compelling than commercial interests in the Mediterranean, or the Atlantic, or wherever. That could warrant a standing naval presence in the region that would be unthinkable beyond Asia.
Accordingly, Indian strategists and pundits fret over the prospect of a Chinese “string of pearls,” a network of naval bases encircling the subcontinent. Many view commercial ports such as Colombo, on Sri Lanka, or Gwadar, in western Pakistan, as the makings of a string of pearls.
Though premature, such fears are scarcely outlandish. Seaports that can accommodate container ships and the like can accommodate fighting ships for routine functions such as refueling and reprovisioning. They can be further improved to serve as full-up naval stations. In short, Beijing is creating options for itself. Whether it chooses to exercise that option will depend on how swiftly and fully Chinese naval power matures, how successfully Beijing manages events closer to home, and how menacing the South Asian strategic environment appears. Again, great powers covet options to hedge against the unknown. I would do the same.
But third, the good news from the Indian or American standpoint is that converting a commercial port into a full-blown base is a major undertaking, unlikely to escape the notice of watchful rivals. For one thing, Beijing would have to convince the host country to permit such a project — at the risk of antagonizing India, the regional heavyweight. Negotiations might attract attention. For another, Mahan notes that the hallmarks of a naval base are position, strength, and resources. Many prospective pearls occupy opportune strategic positions, to be sure. But most of them also lie within easy striking reach of the Indian Air Force, not to mention the U.S. and Indian fleets.
If Beijing means to develop Gwadar or Colombo into a true naval station, consequently, it will need to harden the port facilities, install defenses against air and naval assault, and so forth. These are conspicuous undertakings. In short, it will have to telegraph its plans, giving New Delhi, Washington, and other regional stakeholders time to mull their response.
What’s the old saying, that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty? The same goes for security vis-à-vis an ambitious China.