Frankly, I was quite fascinated by this theory of string of pearls, when I first read about it. It is not a very new hypothesis and was originally proposed by Mr.Christopher J. Pehrson, author of the book “String of Pearls: Meeting the challenge of china’s rising power across the Asian littoral”. In this book, Mr. Pehrson has proposed that “The ‘String of Pearls’ describes the manifestation of China’s rising geopolitical influence through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, develop special diplomatic relationships and modernize military forces that extend from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Arabian Gulf.”
The concept is reminiscent of the John Foster Dulles days in the cold war scenario, where United States Government had created a chain of friendly nations around Soviet Russia with International treaties like NATO and SEATO. Mr. Pehrson suggests that China is similarly surrounding India with Ports and connecting roads to limit India’s rising sea power. He calls these ports as pearls in a string.
The phrase “string of pearls” to describe China’s strategy for building ports was originally used by analysts working for the US Department of Defense. Indian officials from New Delhi’s south block, where India’s foreign affairs ministry is located, picked up the phrase from the Americans and after that, there has been a considerable amount of discussion within defense experts in India. Professor Shrikant Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi says that, “This is not a fear, this is a fact,” He believes that China is “setting up shop” in smaller countries around the Indian Ocean because of oil. An estimated 80% of oil for China’s resource-hungry economy comes from the Middle East and Africa, via the Indian Ocean. He says further that, “When you put together all these jigsaw puzzles it becomes clear that Chinese focus in Indian Ocean is not just for trade, it is a grand design for the 21st Century.” Alka Acharya, head of East Asian studies at this university says that China’s ‘string of pearls’ policy started in the 1980s and its basic aim was to give China increased energy security with refueling stations throughout the world. But it has helped China project its political and military influence further. No wonder that many in India fear that although these deep sea ports will be for trade, China could call them in for military or strategic purposes if oil becomes scarce.Now, Which ports are supposed to be the pearls, that surround India? was the first question, that arose in my mind. However there seems to be no unanimity amongst experts, regarding this. Some consider that Chittagong port in Bangladesh, Sittwe port in Myanmar, Hambantota port in SriLanka and the Gawdar port in Pakistan are the real pearls. Some also include in this list, China’s southernmost province Hainan Islands. Karakoram Highway, built by Chinese, inside part of Jammu & Kashmir, illegally held by Pakistan, connecting Khunjereb pass on the China-India border (In illegal possesion of pakistan at present) to the Pakistani capital Islamabad is considered by some as the string in this necklace.
After having read all this, I felt that finding out the Geopolitical facts about these so called Pearls and string might prove to be an interesting endeavor. I set upon this task and soon came out with many interesting images,facts and figures. Initially, I found out that Hainan islands, which is a province of China, are in the vicinity of Vietnam and Cambodia and in reality are very much part of South China Sea, scenario, bearing almost no direct influence on the situation surrounding India. There is no need to look at these Chinese Islands as a possible pearl.
Chittagong port in the Bay of Bengal is the largest Sea Port of Bangladesh. The present port is on the banks of river Karnafuli, a situation very similar to Hugli river port near Kolkata, surrounded by a squalid city. Bangladesh authorities have embarked upon a very ambitious project to develop and transform Chittagong commercial port and transform the coast line. The project is estimated to cost about $9 bn. It is reported that Chinese have agreed to fund this project to a substantial extent. The plans involve an ambitious new deep sea port further along the coast, and a motorway running all the way to China – via neighbouring Myanmar. Work is going on at present on two huge container terminals. A gleaming four lane motor way and a suspension bridge has also come up. However from reports, it appears that the money for suspension bridge came from a Gulf country. Chinese contractors have been hired to complete all these works.
Chittagong is at a distance of about 1000 KM from nearest Chinese road head city of Pu’er Shi in Yunnan Province. Bangladesh has no common borders with China and any motorway or pipe line, if laid, would have to pass through Myanmar. The situation in border areas of Myanmar with China can not be described as peaceful or friendly and any talk of such motorway, appears to be little far fetched, from any military point of view. Bangladesh is not a hostile country towards India. Dr. Dipu Moni, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, categorically says that “I don’t believe if China helps us build this sea port, that China will be able to use it for other purposes,” and adds that “Bangladesh will never let any part of its territory be used for any kind of attacks or anything like that,” In fact Bangladesh wants to be seen as a “bridge” from China to India, and is careful not to offend either of its giant neighbours.
Sittwe port, situated about 265 KM south of Chittagong, is at present a small port on Myanmar coastline. The port is located near the confluence point of river Kaladan with Bay of Bengal. This river in fact rises in the Indian State of Mizoram and flows south to Sittwe. The river is navigable only upto Paletwa. Initially it was reported that China was negotiating with Myanmar about development of this port. However, with India’s ‘Look East’ policy in force, India seems to have taken charge of the situation here. An agreement was signed between India and Myanmar in April 2009 regarding development of Kaladan transport project, which also includes development of Sittwe port. The project has been awarded to an Indian company ‘Essar Projects’ and involves constructing a port at Sittwe and a jetty at Paletwa, 120 kilometers of road to be built in Myanmar from the river terminal in Paletwa to the India-Burma border in the northeast. The project will have 333 miles (539 kilometers) of waterways and 140 miles of roads. It would be completed in 36 months at the cost of about $ 75 million and is entirely financed by India. It is expected that this project would boost links between ports on India’s eastern seaboard and Sittwe in Arakan (Rakhine) State, Myanmar. From there, goods will be shipped along the Kaladan River from its confluence near Sittwe to Paletwa in Chin State and by road to India’s Mizoram State, which will provide an alternate route for transport of goods to India’s landlocked northeast. It should be obvious to anyone that Sittwe is definitely not one of the China’s pearls.
Let us now travel south to the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Hambantota is a small fishing harbour on this coast. Sri lanka has proposed to build a modern port facility near the existing fishing harbour. Entire project is proposed to be completed in 15 years from year 2008 and is expected to cost about $ 1 billion. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa says that the project was first offered to India but Indians showed no interest in it. Later the project was offered to Chinese. The present Chinese commitment is for the construction of the first stage only, which is estimated to cost US $ 360 million. China has agreed to give 85 per cent of this amount at concessional interest. The balance is being contributed by the Government of Sri Lanka. This stage envisages the construction of a 1000-metre jetty, which will enable the harbour to function as an industrial port for the import and export of industrial chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. By 2023, Hambantota is projected to have a liquefied natural gas refinery, aviation fuel storage facilities, three separate docks giving the port a transshipment capacity and dry docks for ship repair and construction. The project also envisages that when completed, the port will serve as a base for bunkering and refueling.
It is very unlikely that Sri Lanka would allow the Chinese Navy to use Hambantota against India. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa says that India has nothing to worry about, because the project is strictly a commercial venture. Considering the overall friendly relations between Sri lanka and India, Hambantota appears to be just that, a commercial venture. One can also appreciate the Chines interest in this project as the port is situated right on the sea route used by shipping from Gulf states to South China Sea ports carrying oil. On 10th June of this year, India and Sri Lanka have agreed on establishing the office of Consulate-General of India in Hambantota to reinforce consular cooperation and friendly links. This move clearly shows that India is on guard.
This brings us to last of these supposedly Chines pearls. The Chinese have helped Pakistan in the construction of a port at Gwadar on the Mekran coast in Baluchistan. The first phase of the construction has already been completed and the port was commissioned when Pervez Musharraf was the President. However this port is being run at present, by a Singapore company. At Gawder, Pakistanis appear to more willing than Chinese, to let them use the facility. Pakistanis had very ambitious plans for Gawder. This port was supposed to be the new gateway for trade to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and the Xinjiang and the Sichuan provinces and the Tibetan region of China. Pakistanis had offered to the Chinese, the use of Gwadar as a transshipment point for oil and gas, which could be brought to Gwadar and from there moved by pipelines to Xinjiang. A rail and road network between Gwadar and Xinjiang was also proposed. Construction of a huge oil refining capability in Gwadar was also planned. However, except for agreeing to feasibility studies in respect of these proposals, the Chinese have not made any firm commitments regarding their participation in any other project.
There are solid reasons for this apparent non interest by the Chinese in Gawder. In the first place security situation in Baluchistan and in particular Mekran coast is far from satisfactory. There is a very heavy presence of extremist elements in adjoining province of Helmund in Afghanistan. Presence of strong anti federal elements in Baluchistan further complicates the situation. In fact, Chinese have preferred using the facilities at Karachi for the ships of their anti-piracy patrols than the facilities at Gwadar. Unless and until there is peace and stability in Afghanistan, the prospects of Gwadar emerging as the gateway for the external trade of the CARs will remain weak.
Iran, with Indian assistance, has developed a modern port facility at Chabahar , which happens to be just west of Gawder. This port and the security situation in surrounding areas, makes it far more easier to transport goods to Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics from here. Iran has offered special rates and facilities for such transshipment goods. A Road has been built by India at Zaranj on the Iran-Afghanistan border to connect to the golden quadrilateral route joining major Afghan cities. There developments have virtually nullified all the major advantages Gawder port was supposed to have. It is no wonder that the Gwadar port has not been attracting many ocean-going ships.
That brings us to the last location of String of Pearls theory. The Karakoram Highway, which connects China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s north, can also be seen as one of China’s pearls. The highway, called the ninth wonder of the world by some, because of its altitude, was completed in 1986 after 20 years of construction. This road has real strategic importance. It connects Chinese highway system to Pakistan Highways. The road opened up China-Pakistan trade and gave both of India’s rivals a fast route through the mountains, not far from the Line of Control in Kashmir.
However, this road has been built in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir and a solution of the Kashmir problem, if found any time in future, would have provisions to check its misuse by China. Another development, which took place this year has virtually closed this road for use by anyone at least for near future. In Hunza area of Pakistan occupied Kashmir, a major land slide has created a new lake near Atabad. The rising waters of this lake have submerged about 10 KM stretch of the Karakoram Highway, cutting of the transport to goods to Gilgit, Baltistan. Eventually the road might be repaired, but the strategic reliability would always remain in question.
As expected, Chinese are giving India’s fears a short shrift. Hu Sisheng, head of South Asia policy at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, which is a tightly guarded government-run facility in Beijing and analyses foreign affairs and directly advises China’s leaders, says that “During peace time, these kinds of facilities are only for commercial purposes, the Indians are being paranoid when they talk of a string of pearls.” He says further that Washington is playing games and trying to cosy up to India, as it becomes increasingly concerned about China’s rise.
It would be difficult to accept everything that Chinese say. One thing is however very clear about the principal motive behind Chinese assistance to India’s neighbours. It is just a three letter word, Oil. Chinese hunger for oil is bound to increase by leaps and bounds as she grows in coming years. Major portion of this is likely to come from Gulf states. China appears to be just safeguarding the Sea routes by which this oil would come.
If these actions have any strategic or military angle, only the future can tell. India needs to be on guard and take necessary actions. From the above description, I feel reassured and convinced that India’s strategic planners have taken necessary steps to safeguard interests of the country. However it is clear from this study of the Pearls and the string, that it appears to be nothing but just a paranoidal illusion thought about by some experts.
17 June 2010