The string of pearls and the Maritime Silk Road

By Zhou Bo
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, February 12, 2014
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The phrase ‘String of Pearls’ was first used in 2005, in a report entitled “Energy Futures in Asia” provided to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H Rumsfeld by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. It alleged that China was adopting a “string of pearls” strategy of bases stretching from the Middle East to southern China. These “pearls” were naval bases or electronic eavesdropping posts built by the Chinese in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistani and Sri Lanka. The purpose was to project its power overseas and protect its oil shipments.

Nine years have since elapsed. The phrase, or theory, still sticks in the international media and in some think tank reports.

These “bases” are found nowhere in the Indian Ocean. The most telling evidence is that the PLA Navy has been conducting counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden for five years without any bases of their own. Jean-Paul Adam, the Seychelles Foreign Affairs Minister, announced in December 2011 that his country had invited China to set up a military base in his country, but the Chinese Ministry of Defense only responded that the Chinese side would “consider” replenishment or port calls in the Seychelles and other countries.

China has only two purposes in the Indian Ocean: economic gains and the security of Sea lines of Communication (SLOC). The first objective is achieved through commercial interactions with littoral states. For the second purpose, the Chinese Navy has, since the end of 2008, joined international military efforts in combating piracy in the waters off the coast of Somalia. In fact, the only thing justifiable in the “string of pearls” theory is that it underlines the growing importance, even then, of the Indian Ocean for China’s ever-expanding national interests, especially in terms of energy import. Nowadays China is securing its energy needs from all parts of the world, but the Middle East still prevails as the most important source. By the end of 2013, China had become the largest trader and the largest oil importer in the world. The Indian Ocean, and hence the security of SLOCs from Bab-el-Mandeb, Hormuz, to the Malacca Strait, is thus vitally important for China.

Two countries are most important for China’s freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean: the U.S. and India. The U.S. is the only country that has the full capabilities to control the chokepoints in the Indian Ocean and cut off the SLOCs all the way to China, but it is unlikely to exercise such capabilities, unless, perhaps, in an all-out war with China. Even during the Cold War neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union endeavored to cut off any SLOCs in the world. Besides, the SLOCs are life-lines for all states. Cutting off China’s SLOCs will also affect U.S. allies of Japan, ROK and Australia. So long as Sino-American relations remain manageable, such a worst-case scenario is unlikely to occur.

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