James Holmes

China Could Still Build ‘String of Pearls’

Just because China hasn’t built bases in the Indian Ocean yet, doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

China Could Still Build ‘String of Pearls’
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last May in Singapore the Naval Diplomat had the pleasure of getting tanked carrying on a highbrow conversation with Brendan Thomas-Noone, a young Lowy Institute scholar on the rise. You would be agog at the magnificence of Brendan’s mane of facial hair, which rivals even this guy. But that’s not important. What is important is that he’s holding forth over at The National Interest about China’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean.

Brendan cites a new report out of the National Defense University that concludes, in a nutshell, that there’s little reason to expect China to seek bases in the Indian Ocean. PLA Navy detachments in South Asia follow logistical patterns similar to those employed by the U.S. Navy for many decades. Rather than have a whole task force put into port, for instance, Chinese combat logistics ships will put into a harbor like Aden for refrigerated stores and sundry items, then return to sea to replenish the rest of the task force while riding the waves.

From this track record the NDU authors conclude that none of the evidence they proffer “supports assertions that the Chinese intend to deploy enough forces in the Indian Ocean to dominate the region or engage in major combat operations with any of its neighbors.” No bases for you, Beijing!

Well, fine. But some things are true until they’re not. As financial planners will advise you, past performance is no guarantee of future results. China’s Indian Ocean adventures have indeed been unobjectionable to date. (Although you might get an argument about that from Indians worried about Chinese submarines’ probes into the region over the past year.) Indeed, we can’t expect China to become joint custodian of the maritime order and then deny it the right to support task forces plying Asian seas. But wouldn’t a team of analysts from imperial Spain’s National Defense University — had such a thing existed — have written the same thing about the U.S. Navy in 1897?

Think about it. What would our mythical Spanish NDU team have learned from studying U.S. history? Early America was a pushover at sea. After a short spasm of naval activity during the American Civil War, furthermore, the United States let its fleet decay to about fifty decrepit wooden warships. The U.S. Navy wasn’t even the strongest in its own hemisphere. Congress authorized the republic’s first modern battle fleet in 1883. But what did Washington do, even then, with its shiny new toy? Not much. It didn’t partake of the European great powers’ scramble for colonies in Asia or Africa, or even in the Americas.

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Until it did. In 1898 the United States fought a short, sharp war against Spain … and wrenched most of that doddering empire’s colonial holdings from it. Such are the hazards of projecting the past into the future. In short order America occupied Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and other Spanish islands while annexing Hawaii. Few would have foreseen such a turnabout on the eve of the Spanish-American War, judging from the republic’s first century of national life. And yet it happened. A crusader state was born virtually overnight. Who’d’ve thought?

So beware of linear thinking in the non-linear, topsy-turvy realm of international competition and conflict. Fin de siècle America defied straight-line analysis. So could 21st-century China. Indeed, the PLA Navy is probably cultivating operational methods — including logistical methods — to do just that should the word come down from political authorities on high. Let’s not repose too much confidence in predictions — lest a Black Swan come to roost.