China’s string of Pearls or a noose around India’s neck?

Globally China is increasingly active in striving for Energy Security in ways which portend direct competition for energy resources with the US. This is producing a possibility of conflict between the two nations

- US China Commission 2005 Report to Congress


Paradoxically the ever strong US Dollar of the rapidly melting US economy is enticing a new romance between the military superpower US and the economic superpower China. The US desperately needs China to purchase US Treasury Bonds to finance Obama’s economic stimulus package of USD 795BN, while China needs a safe investment for its massive trade surpluses and foreign exchange reserves of USD 1.9 trillion.

A popular theory is that economic interdependence will prevent war. During the Bush Administration China and the US were at a crossroads. A positive fallout from the global economic crisis is the window of strategic opportunity for US and China to secure a peaceful/ beneficial co-existence. President Obama’s decision to send Hilary Clinton to China on her first visit as Secretary of State augurs well not only for US China relations but for Sri Lanka and our South Asian neighbours. India may be the only country which may disagree.

String of Pearls (SOP)

Primarily driven by the need to secure China’s foreign oil and trade routes so critical for peaceful development, China adopted a benign approach to gain influence along the sea route through investments, port developments and diplomatic measures. This geopolitical strategy was first dubbed as a "String of Pearls" in a report titled "Energy Futures in Asia" by Defence Contractor Booze Allen Hamilton, Commissioned by the Pentagon in 2005. SOP extends from the Coast of Hainan in China through the littorals of South China Seas Straits of Malacca, across the India Ocean on to the littorals of the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf.

SOP soon became so hot and sensational news and the label "String of Pearls" was so attractive that the international media from Time Magazine and the Economist to Al Jazeera applied the label in their analytical reports of the SOP. Al Jazeera declared on 14.09.2005 that the US is threatened by an aggressive Chinese sea power. Henry Kissinger wrote to the Australian (13.06.2005) under the title "China shifts the Centre of Gravity". The new threat was not lost on Indian security analysts who never dreamt that India’s naval strategist Panikkar’s dream of controlling the waves from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits would ever be challenged. Sudha Ramachandran wrote under the title "China’s Pearl in Pakistan waters" to Asian Times Online on 17.03.2005 while Pramit Mitra asked the question "India and China – rivals or partners?" In an Article to South Asia Monitor on 05.03.2005.

China’s low profile exhibition of SOP in the Asian Sea Route created such strong waves in the US, that the Pentagon commissioned several studies of the SOP and its impact on the security environment in the region. One such study was ``SOP – meeting the challenge of China’s rising power across the Asian Littoral’’ by Pentagon Air Force officer Christopher J. Pehrson in July 2006. This 32 page report describes the SOP as a (manifestation of China’s rising geopolitical influence through development of ports, air fields, special diplomatic relationships and modernized military forces. The vital question posed by the report is whether SOP is in accordance with China’s stated policy of peaceful development or if China one day will make a bid for regional primacy.

SOP increased India’s migraine instantly. Until SOP was unveiled, India’s declared ambition was as arrogantly claimed by authorities is to control the Indian Ocean from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits. Provoking China dangerously, if not foolishly, Indian leaders also threatened to block the choke point on China’s oil and trade route - the Malacca Straits - in the event of a war with the perceived potential enemy China.

During 1971, India - Pakistan war and again during Kargil conflict of 1999 India threatened to blockade Karachchi Port which handled 90% of Pakistan’s sea-borne trade. India successfully threated JR’s government not to lease oil tanks in Trincomalee to US interests and recently unsuccessfully attempted to block the construction of the Hambantota Port alleging that it is a Chinese Pearl. As explained later it is now apparent that the Sethu canal project is one of India’s responses to SOP in order to ensure that the Indian naval ships could avoid crossing the SOP when they move between the east and west coast of India. SOP connects Guarda port in Pakistan, Hambantota and Chittagong Port in Bangladesh. No wonder then the Indian Minister of Shipping repeatedly threated to cut off Indian trans-shipment cargo moving to Colombo after the completion of the Sethu project.

When I saw a graphic showing SOP in Pehrson’s report, I wondered whether it is a noose around India’s neck/ambitions and to remind India that the Indian Ocean is a common and does not belong to any country. Commons are international seaways and airways used by the international community recognized as such by international treaties and no nation asserts sovereignty over the commons. Peaceful commercial pearls of SOP are a natural response of China to India’s jingoistic threats to China’s vital oil and trade routes. The containment of India’s naval and strategic ambitions in the region is a welcome relief to the three countries with pearls - Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. With safety guaranteed for the pearls, Sri Lanka and her neignbours should persue a peaceful, economic results oriented pragmatic strategy and assist to strengthen Obama’s policy towards China. Our Hambantota Port Development planners should factor this vital facet to their master plan.

Briefly Pehrson’s finding are:

"SOP is more than a naval or military strategy and is also more than a regional strategy. The pearls have been non confrontational with no evidence of imperial or neo colonial ambitions. The economic benefits and diplomatic relations have induced countries of the region to facilitate Chian’s strategic ambitions. Port facilities developed by China in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and (now Hambantota) are mutual win-win projects. China also has an ambitious USD20bn proposal to build Kra Canal to avoid the choke point of the Malacca Straits. Although the plan is currently stalled due to political opposition in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore it reveals the scope and scale of China’s ambitions for SOP.

"Shipping in the Straits is extremely crowded and is a haven for pirates and terrorists. The Malacca Straits problem is a prime example of why China is pursuing SOP and the Kra Canal Project. SOP presents a complex strategic situation with many facets to US policy makers. SOP has shifted the balance of power throughout the region. US influence may seem to diminish as China’s influence grows in strength and stature, but regional states are not prohibited from maintaining favourable relations with both the US and China. The US should expect countries like Pakistan, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam to welcome overtures from China. Even America’s staunchest allies, Japan, S. Korea, Australia and the Phillipines find it in their self interest to improve ties with China. South Asian nations delicately balance their relationship with the US and China in pursuit of their relationship. Their perception is a peaceful region does not require a US military presence."

The report alleges that while China’s plan is to protect its trade, energy resources and supplies, Chinese fishing trawlers have been found occasionally mapping the ocean floor to facilitate submarine operations.

Strongly linked economies with robust trade have been the defining characteristic of the US-China relationship in recent years. The two–way trade exceeded USD230 bn in 2004 and USD 165bn was in China’s favour. US and China have mutual security interests in combating terrorism, ensuring freedom of navigation on the High Seas and protecting the environment. US and China are at a cross road and SOP presents both challenges and a window of opportunity for the US. Bold leadership and prudent foresight will enable the US and China to reap the rewards of strategic co-operation and avert the calamity of hostile confrontation the report concludes.

This policy indeed appears to be the policy Obama is following and conveyed to Beijing by his envoy Hillary Clinton in 2009.

India’s response to SOP

Has India become irrelevant by these developments despite the nuclear deal with the Bush Administration? this is a question posed by some Sri Lankan writers.

India’s responses to SOP include Sethu Canal Project, dumping long standing cold war ally Russia to embrace US under Bush, expanding the Blue Water fleet with aircraft carriers and submarines and efforts to induce Sri Lanka to enter into bilateral security regime mechanisms to provide maritime security in South Asian seas. As K. Godage has observed, India wants to convince Sri Lanka that a mitilary presence of non littoral powers in the Indian ocean threatens regional security.

Many including this writer could not see in their radar India’s real motives for the Sethu Project. While India’s declared goal to facilitate commercial shipping was easily rejected, the common conclusion was that the canal was really meant to facilitate the Indian navy to move between the east and west without circumnavigating Sri Lanka and saving both time and cost. As seen from the graphic from Pehrson’s illuminating report, the Sethu Canal is vital for the Indian navy to avoid crossing SOP rather than for avoiding circumnavigating Sri Lanka. Currently the USD600m Sethu Project is stalled due to opposition from the Hindus. India’s goal now is to explore the space.

At a seminar held in New Delhi 11.12.2006, Indian speakers including KC Pant, former defence minister, argued India and Sri Lanka should ensure security of the east west sea lane which straddled India and Sri Lanka. Although that exercise failed, India continues to sell this strategic plan to Sri Lanka through our foreign minister. Dumping Russia to embrace the US has boomeranged. Russia and siz Central Asian Republics recently entered into Collective Security Treat Organisatin (CSTO) and US was asked to remove their air bases in Kyrgyzstan. CSTO in the North and SOP in the South, India’s naval ambitions appear to be contained. Pehrson predicts in his report that if a security or energy crisis precipitates the need to deploy a military presence into the SOP region the newly strengthened and modernized Chinese fleet will be deployed in that region. This prospect may give comfort to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but a severe migraine to India.

Pakistan and SOP

Guarda port in Pakistan built by China at a cost of USD 1.2bn is a main SOP Pearl. Guarda Port is 450 miles west of Karachchi and for China it is at the entrance of the Persian Gulf. Pehrson states in his report that this pearl has enhanced strategic, diplomatic and economic ties between Pakistan and China.

Sri Lanka and SOP

The Pentagon reports have already identified Hambantota as a Pearl of China’s SOP. This alone explains India’s efforts to block the construction of the Hambantota Port.

Besides India, Sri Lanka’s rivals in development of trans-shipment, Singapore and Dubai, are also disturbed by the prospects of severe competition from Hambantota. Pentagon’s SOP label was applied to Hambantota during the Bush Administration. It is evident that under Obama the US will perceive a result oriented pragmatic strategy of engaging China with the realization that the economies of China and the US are linked inexorably. So why quarrel or be confrontational, asked Pehrson in his report.

A strong relationship between Sri Lanka and China need not assume an anti US character, nor should it prevent China from ensuring freedom of the seas in our region for the benefit of all member countries of SAARC. As Australia, S.Korea, Japan and the Phillipines have found, it is in our national interest to improve our ties with China delicately balancing our relationship with the US. Our goal should be to reap economic rewards from the development of the Hambantota port no matter what label is applied to the project by the Pentagon defence contractors and similar stake holders in potential conflicts.

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