James Holmes

Gwadar and the “String of Pearls”

“India should keep watch while holding its fears in check. The sky may fall — but not today.”

This week the not-so-unexpected news broke that Overseas Port Holdings Ltd., a Chinese state-run enterprise, has taken over management of the western Pakistani seaport of Gwadar from the Singaporean firm PSA International. The transfer of the container port facility — whose development Beijing has bankrolled over the past decade — has been in the works for some years now. It comes as little shock.

Still, Indian officialdom voiced concern about a Chinese presence along the subcontinent's western flank. Suitably improved, a container port can accommodate men-of-war. Accordingly, many in New Delhi fret over the prospect of a "string of pearls," a network of Chinese naval bases encircling India from the sea and cramping the nation's maritime aspirations.

A sort of cascade effect is at work in the Indo-Pacific. In the Western Pacific, China worries about being encircled; in South Asia, China is the power seen as intent on doing the encircling. In the Western Pacific, China is the rising naval challenger facing off against a seagoing hegemon, America; in South Asia, China looks to Indian eyes like the seagoing hegemon of the future. It's hardly surprising, consequently, that a hypothetical network of Chinese bases triggers some of the same reflexes in New Delhi that longstanding American primacy triggers in East Asia.

Are Indian fears overwrought? For now, yes. I first wrote about this in the 2007 timeframe, applying Alfred Thayer Mahan's framework for appraising the worth of prospective naval stations. Mahan measured the value of a base in terms of its position on the map, meaning its proximity to important sea lanes or chokepoints; its strength, meaning its natural defenses against attack or its capacity to be fortified; and its resources, meaning its capacity to supply itself from the port's environs or by shipping in supplies.

Gwadar boasts geographic position in spades, situated as it is to India's west and near the Strait of Hormuz. But it is neither strong nor well-supplied. It sits on a narrow spit of land jutting out from the Pakistani coastline, making it an ideal target for air or missile strikes. Supplies must be transported in through Baluchistan, a region plagued by a nagging insurgency. In all likelihood Mahan would disapprove of Gwadar were he — heaven forbid — advising Beijing.

This analysis has weathered well, but I would add a fourth parameter to Mahan's template, namely alliance relations. It's far from clear (to me) that Islamabad would grant China's navy the use of Gwadar in wartime, no matter what access it provides during routine peacetime operations. The port's potential economic value is too great. Unless the Pakistani regime sees itself as in mortal danger, it may balk at any plans for a string of pearls. The downsides are too great.

Does Beijing entertain naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean? I doubt it not. But for now, China is merely cultivating options for the future. India should keep watch while holding its fears in check. The sky may fall — but not today.