China's 'String of Pearls'

Issue No. 7 | April 01-15, 2013By 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.