China’s ‘String of Pearls’

SP's MAI - - FRONT PAGE - [ By Air Mar­shal (Retd) Anil Cho­pra ]

Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and Pre­mier Li Ke­qiang have taken their des­tined places in the new Chi­nese hi­er­ar­chy. Among Xi’s open­ing for­eign pol­icy re­marks, re­la­tion­ship with In­dia has fig­ured promi­nently. He ac­knowl­edges the boundary is­sue as hav­ing been in­her­ited from his­tory and be­ing dif­fi­cult to re­solve. How­ever, he sug­gests a five-point Sino-In­dian re­la­tion­ship ap­proach which in­cludes con­ti­nu­ity in com­mu­ni­ca­tions on all is­sues; ex­pand­ing co­op­er­a­tion for mu­tual in­vest­ment; in­creased peo­ple-to-peo­ple con­tact; co­or­di­na­tion and sup­port for each other in in­ter­na­tional fo­rums; and need to show un­der­stand­ing for re­solv­ing ir­ri­tants.

Not­with­stand­ing the states­man­like open­ing re­marks, the re­la­tion­ship is much more com­plex than meets the eye. Se­ri­ous ‘near un­re­solv­able’ boundary dif­fer­ences, fre­quent Chi­nese pin-prick like trans­gres­sions across the bor­der, the mas­sive build-up of ‘mil­i­tary sup­port’ in­fra­struc­ture in Ti­bet, the se­ries of dams on Brahma­pu­tra River and pos­si­bil­ity of di­ver­sion, the dump­ing of Chi­nese cheap goods at the cost of sur­vival of In­dian small and medium en­ter­prises, se­ri­ous trade im­bal­ance, covert cy­ber war­fare, and most im­por­tantly, the en­cir­clement of In­dia through for­eign pol­icy ini­tia­tives, re­ferred to by the world as a ‘String of Pearls’.


Over the last few decades, China has very sys­tem­at­i­cally wo­ven this ‘String of Pearls’ to en­cir­cle In­dia. It is not only part of their In­dia con­tain­ment strat­egy, but also to in­crease sphere of in­flu­ence in the In­dian Ocean re­gion, and in turn pre­vent the United States (along with friends) to en­cir­cle China. Let us look at the neck­lace bead by bead. China has been openly sup­port­ing Pak­istan since early 1960s and overtly/covertly helped it build air­craft in­dus­try, mis­sile tech­nol­ogy and nu­clear power among oth­ers. In ex­change Pak­istan ceded to China sig­nif­i­cant ter­ri­tory in the strate­gic north Kash­mir area. China built the strate­gi­cally lo­cated Gwadar port near Ira­nian bor­der in Pak­istan and has very re­cently of­fered to op­er­ate the same on Pak­istan’s be­half, de facto tak­ing over full con­trol. It is in­volved in prac­ti­cally ev­ery facet of Pak­istani econ­omy. This im­por­tant port in oth­er­wise tur­bu­lent Baluchis­tan will be­come sig­nif­i­cant when US pulls out of Afghanistan. China wants to use this port as a gate­way from Mid­dle East to its cen­tral and west­ern re­gions and re­duce de­pen­dence on the long route through Malacca Strait.

For long China has been build­ing roads and air­fields in Myan­mar. More re­cently it built an oil and gas pipe­line from Myan­mar coast to reach China’s Yun­nan re­gion just north of Myan­mar. The well-known ‘Ham­ban­tota port’ com­plex in south­ern Sri Lanka opened in 2010. That was also sig­nal to In­dia by Sri Lanka to ‘lay off’ on Tamil is­sue else we go to other friends. Chi­nese air­craft in­dus­try is try­ing to en­ter Sri Lanka in a big way. China is ac­tively sup­port­ing port mod­erni­sa­tion at Chit­tagong and on Sona­dia Is­land in Bangladesh. China is also one of the big­gest in­vestors in ‘eco­nom­i­cally im­pov­er­ished but nat­u­ral wealth rich’ Africa. Es­pe­cially the In­dian Ocean re­gion of Africa is of im­me­di­ate con­cern to In­dia. Amer­i­can strate­gist an­a­lyst Dr Robert Ka­plan feels all th­ese bou­quets of com­mer­cial, po­lit­i­cal, strate­gic and per­haps mil­i­tary ven­tures are part of an ag­gres­sive strat­egy. He feels that some of th­ese places could also be used like ware­hous­ing hubs for a grow­ing Chi­nese econ­omy. The ag­gres­sive ex­pan­sion of Chi­nese navy is

part of this grand strat­egy.

Im­pli­ca­tions for In­dia

China con­tin­ues to down­play the so-called ‘String of Pearls’ the­ory by ex­plain­ing all th­ese projects as devel­op­ment sup­port and le­git­i­mate eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity. Yet eco­nomic de­pen­dence of th­ese de­vel­op­ing coun­tries has its po­lit­i­cal side ef­fects. Mil­i­tary se­cu­rity for Pak­istan, eth­nic Tamil bul­wark against In­dia for Sri Lanka, po­lit­i­cal and mo­ral sup­port for In­di­aen­cir­cled Bangladesh, a shield for po­lit­i­cally un­sta­ble but now Maoist dom­i­nated Nepal, a geopo­lit­i­cal bal­ance for Myan­mar, and eco­nomic sup­port for be­lea­guered north-east Africa.

The choices for In­dia are less mil­i­tary and more for­eign pol­icy linked. While un­doubt­edly we need to build a cred­i­ble mil­i­tary de­ter­rence against China, we need to re-visit our for­eign pol­icy neigh­bour by neigh­bour. The of­ten spo­ken ‘big-brother’ ap­proach with in­tel­li­gent give­and-take must re­place the ‘big bully’ im­pres­sion.

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