Is the “String of Pearls” theory valid? This is a debate which has been ongoing since the term was coined in 2005, when the US consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton published “Energy Futures in Asia.” In this report, Booz Allen predicted that China would try to expand its naval presence throughout the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by building maritime civilian infrastructure in friendly states in the region, a strategy dubbed the “String of Pearls.” Since then, there has been much speculation and debate surrounding the validity, extent and potential intentions behind the concept. Commentators here at The Diplomat have both supported the possibility and warned against the utility of the term.
The tricky thing about the String of Pearls debate is that there is a problem with definition. Looking at much of the available literature, the “lowest common denominator” definition is that each “Pearl” represents some form of permanent Chinese military installation in a series of locations along a “String” stretching from Southern China, through the Indian Ocean, to the areas from where China imports much of its natural resources, such as Africa and the Middle East.
2015 has been an interesting year for China’s presence in the IOR. Let’s take a look at some relevant 2015 facts about China’s engagement by following the supposed “String” from Southern China to East Africa.
The building of airfields and other military facilities in the South China Sea continue. While this might not seem immediately relevant to the IOR, a potential “Pearl” located at the approaches to China itself could conceivably fit into a wider “String of Pearls” strategy.
Moving west, Chinese submarines have been spotted several times in the Indian Ocean the last year. In late 2014, a Song-class attack boat docked in Colombo harbor to refuel, ostensibly en-route to join the Chinese anti-piracy squadron in the Gulf of Aden. A couple of weeks later, a nuclear Han-class appeared in Colombo, together with an announcement from Beijing stating that the People’s Liberation Army Navy would begin submarine combat patrols in the Indian Ocean. There have been worries that the ousting of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa this January would sour relations with Beijing. While the new president, Mathripala Sirisena, has attempted to forge closer relations with New Delhi, China has continued its investments and construction in Sri Lanka’s southern port of Hambantota.
In the Bay of Bengal, China has lost some ground. As reported by Ankit Panda from The Diplomat, India was able to secure access for its cargo vessels to Chittagong, previously touted as a “Pearl” on China’s “String.” While this probably isn’t groundshaking strategic news in itself, it does indicate closer relations between Dhaka and New Delhi, perhaps at Beijing’s expense.
In Myanmar, relations with Beijing have taken a hit since the stepping-down of former dictator Than Shwe in 2011. The current president Thein Sein, has opened the country to western investment, in many places removing Chinese companies’ near-monopoly. Furthermore, earlier this year Myanmar accidentally bombed Chinese territory, killing four Chinese citizens. While Beijing’s key project in the country, the Sino-Burmese pipeline and port facilities in Kyaukpyu (another supposed “Pearl”) remains operation, China is feeling the heat in this country as well.
Sino-Pakistani relations, on the other hand, are doing well. China is set to sell 8 export-variant Yuan-class diesel subs to Islamabad, raising the possibility of a permanent-ish PLAN “place” in the country. Perhaps not coincidentally, A Yuan-class sub recently visited Karachi, in the first-ever visit by a PLAN boat to Pakistan. The much-touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a series of infrastructural projects aimed at connecting China’s western province of Xinjiang with the Pakistani ports of Gwadar and Karachi, has officially entered its implementation stage.
In the western part of the IOR, there are mixed signals regarding possible “Pearls”. The tiny island states of the Seychelles and the Maldives have both been considered hot candidates for the location of a possible PLAN base. However, in the Maldives it appears that this idea has fallen through, and there is yet no word of a permanent PLAN presence in the Seychelles (in fact, India set up a radar installation in the country this year.)
Outside of Pakistan, the most promising candidate for a potential “Pearl” seems to be Djibouti. The tiny African state appears to have offered China the opportunity to establish a permanent facility at Obock harbor. As the PLAN has frequently used Djibouti as a resupply point during its ongoing mission in the Gulf of Aden, this makes sense. However, what is interesting is that other states, notably the US, France and the UK, are trimming-down their own, long-established presence in the country.
The evidence concerning China’s “String of Pearls” strategy remains ambiguous. However, as former Diplomat-contributor Prof. James Holmes has stated, “Just because China hasn’t built bases in the Indian Ocean yet, doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.”