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.
The rivalry between the Elephant and Dragon is often hyped, but India would not challenge China unnecessarily. There is no dispute between China and India in the Indian Ocean. The Line of Actual Control along the Sino-Indian border has by and large remained peaceful. Although there were a few standoffs, not a single bullet was fired across the border in over fifty years. The queer idea of China encircling India from the sea with the help of Pakistan only exists in the wildest imagination of some Indian “strategists”.
Access, rather than bases, is what the Chinese Navy is really interested in the Indian Ocean. The unchartered waters of the Indian Ocean could be friendlier than the disputed waters in the Pacific. In the Pacific Ocean, China has territorial disputes with a number of countries, but this is not the case in the Indian Ocean. The security of SLOCs is thus in the interests of all other nations. The under-going counter-piracy mission involves Navies from over twenty countries. It could serve as a future mode of cooperation of stake-holders in the Indian Ocean addressing common threats.
Interestingly the route of Chinese Task Forces departing the southern Chinese coast for fighting piracy in the Indian Ocean is not dissimilar from the Maritime Silk Road that Admiral Zheng He and his fleet embarked upon in 1405. Currently, the Chinese leadership is reinvigorating the Maritime Silk Road. China tabled a 3 billion Yuan China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund for the maritime economy, environment, fishery and salvage, and communications on the sea. In October 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to ASEAN that it build the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century. This coincides with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s pledge to upgrade the Gold Decade (2000-2010) of China-ASEAN cooperation into a Diamond Decade. In the Indian Ocean, China is cooperating with littoral states in building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and China- India-Myanmar-Bangladesh Economic Corridor. These mega-projects, with heavy investment from China, will fundamentally change the political and economic landscape of the Indian Ocean and benefit all countries in the region. They will also help to mitigate security concerns in the Maritime Silk Road, ranging from territorial disputes in the South China Sea to transnational threats such as piracy, armed robbery and terrorism.
In the 15th century, Admiral Zheng He went on his seven voyages to the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean with the largest naval fleet in the world. These voyages were not aimed for conquest of peoples or of territory. Instead, they were visits to swap Chinese silk and porcelain for exotic souvenirs such as zebras and giraffes. Zheng He didn’t venture to establish bases either. In so doing, he left a legacy that is intangible but invaluable for China today. It is an image of China that the Chinese people would like to project again in the 21st century as they did 600 years ago: a country standing tall in the center of world, strong yet benign, and friendly to all.
Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with Center of China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science.