Burying China's 'String of Pearls'
Image Credit: REUTERS/Guang Niu/Pool

Burying China's 'String of Pearls'

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In a November 8 column, U.S. Naval War College Professor James R. Holmes (aka the Naval Diplomat) criticized a new National Defense University (NDU) report on Chinese overseas basing that I and a team of analysts published in October 2014. Holmes mischaracterizes the report’s findings as concluding “there’s little reason to expect China to seek bases in the Indian Ocean” and criticizes it for “linear thinking” and “straight-line analysis.” In fact, the report argues that China’s expanding global interests will generate increased demands for out-of-area naval operations and predicts that China is likely to establish at least one “dual-use” civilian/military base to provide logistics support for increased People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operations. The report also concludes that the so-called “string of pearls” model of covert access to commercial ports built with Chinese investment is unable to support a robust, combat-oriented Chinese naval presence in the India Ocean.  The report argues that it would not make strategic sense for the Chinese to pursue such a course.

The NDU report is titled “Not An Idea We Have to Shun:  Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements for the Twenty First Century” and was written by Ross Rustici and me with research assistance from Scott Devary and Jenny Lin. We examined China’s growing foreign economic and security interests abroad; posited which interests needed to be protected and would generate PLA missions; surveyed press reports and statements by government officials about overseas bases; looked at writings by Chinese civilian and military analysts; and conducted interviews with logistics experts. We concluded that China’s current method of protecting its interests abroad by relying solely on commercial port access was unsatisfactory from a Chinese perspective, which suggests change is likely. A number of Chinese commentators agree with this conclusion.

This raises the question: what kind of logistics support would the Chinese military need for an expanded overseas presence? The report identifies and analyzes six potential logistics models, each with distinct features:

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  • The “Pit Stop” model is what China currently uses to support its Gulf of Aden counter-piracy operations. It relies solely on access to existing commercial ports, and is an expensive, ad hoc, and limited means of resupplying naval vessels.
  • The “Lean Colonial Model” illustrated by Germany’s pre-World War I bases in the Pacific is characterized by commercial driven facilities designed not to project military power, but to support commercial activities overseas and enhance a country’s image as an international power.
  • The “Dual Use Logistics Facility” is characterized by its light footprint, its emphasis on providing logistics support to overseas non-traditional security missions, and its dual commercial and military nature.
  • The “String of Pearls” model is similar to the “Dual Use Logistics Facility” except that it would include secret access agreements and covert development of commercial facilities to support later military use, with the ultimate objective of being able to support major combat operations against India and to dominate the Indian Ocean Region.
  • The “Warehouse Model” fashioned after British inter-war bases in the Pacific is largely a one-stop shopping military base where the country’s military can resupply and repair ships, store ordnance and other materiel, station troops, and essentially warehouse all of a forward operating forces’ needs.
  • “Model USA” is the American military’s current military logistics support system with a vast network of military bases, large numbers of auxiliary supply ships, and ad hoc access to logistics chains worldwide.

The report examined the characteristics of each model against long-standing Chinese foreign policy principles. For example, China has emphasized the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. It has also followed Deng’s maxim to lie low and bide time while focusing on the development of its economy. Because some basing models (the “Lean Colonial model”, “Warehouse model” and “Model USA”) involve placing large numbers of troops on the sovereign territory of host nations, we assessed the likelihood of Chinese adoption to be low. Only two models survived the assessment process:  the “Dual Use Logistics Facility” and the “String of Pearls” model.

We used a number of approaches to analyze these two alternatives. What did the physical evidence or evidence of current activity at various facilities suggest? What did current Chinese Navy operational patterns of behavior suggest about future access arrangements with the countries and facilities of the Indian Ocean Region? What characteristics would a base need to support a long-term Chinese plan to conduct conventional military operations against its rivals in the Indian Ocean? Is there any evidence that these features are incorporated in commercial port facilities in the Indian Ocean being built with Chinese investment? Finally, would it make strategic sense for China to covertly build up its military forces in the Indian Ocean, place highly valued naval assets in a high-threat environment, and potentially strand naval assets where they cannot respond quickly to threats to the Chinese mainland?

We concluded that there is scant evidence to support the idea that China would pursue a “String of Pearls” model.  The ports analysts have identified as supposed “String of Pearls” sites (Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and the Coco Islands of Myanmar) lack the features necessary to support major combat operations, and there is little physical evidence of a covert military buildup on any of them. Current PLA Navy operational patterns of behavior rely on other facilities; not a single one of the “String of Pearls” has been used to support PLAN counter-piracy operations. Moreover, the current PLAN operational pattern of behavior (e.g., ad hoc visits, largely involving liberty port calls, with small numbers of vessels at a time) is inconsistent with a country preparing the battle space for large scale conventional conflict.

Finally, it makes no strategic sense for China to be doing what “String of Pearls” advocates claim: placing high value PLAN assets within range of Indian precision air and missile threats; dividing China’s naval forces in ways that make the Chinese homeland more vulnerable; and jeopardizing China’s “peaceful rise” image by building up large, offensively oriented naval and air forces and associated logistics support bases in the Indian Ocean.

We concluded that the “Dual Use Logistics Facility” model makes the most sense to support future Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean. Such a logistics facility would be designed to address non-traditional security challenges to China’s overseas interests. It would ease the logistics burden of China’s overseas naval operations (at present mostly counter-piracy operations), but could expand to support limited operations protecting Chinese citizens and property abroad. These could include conducting non-combatant evacuation operations (NEOs) of Chinese citizens (as in Libya in 2011), conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, and potentially conducting special forces ground operations in such places as Africa to protect Chinese personnel, property and other economic interests.

Interviews with U.S. military logisticians suggested that such a facility could involve a light footprint of perhaps 100 Chinese personnel; would likely be operating in a very restrictive political and legal environment; and could include features such as medical support, ship and equipment repair, communications support, and ammunition/ordnance storage. A “Dual Use Logistics Facility” would be politically palatable to the countries in the region, and the Chinese government could sell the concept domestically as well. Karachi would be the most likely site for such a base. We conclude that a “Dual Use Logistics Facility” would not constitute a direct threat to the countries of the region, to U.S. global military dominance, or to Indian regional dominance. However, it would still constitute a political and diplomatic challenge to both the United States and India.

In his November column, James Holmes suggested that China could still build the “String of Pearls” and criticized the NDU report. We believe China is unlikely to attempt to dominate the Indian Ocean region militarily. Even if it does harbor such ambitions, the “String of Pearls” model would be insufficient to support the logistics needs of a large Chinese air and naval force focused on combat operations. China would need a much more robust logistics infrastructure to support such a force. 

Hypothetically, this would include large hospital and medical facilities; ordnance storage and distribution; petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) storage and distribution; mortuary services; large ship and equipment repair facilities; air traffic control and other air support facilities and operations; and air and missile defenses.  The “String of Pearls” concept based on covert development of military facilities at commercial ports would be insufficient. Moreover, a long lead time would be required to develop such facilities and the necessary construction could not be kept secret, thereby telegraphing China’s intentions well before Beijing would be ready to admit to such ambitions. The NDU report makes this case in detail, and also suggests that the best indicator of Chinese malign intentions would be efforts to build a much more robust overseas military logistics support system capable of supporting sustained combat operations.  The “String of Pearls” model has long outlived its usefulness as a strategic concept!

Dr. Christopher D. Yung is a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), at the National Defense University.

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