Page 1 of 2 Unstringing China's strategic pearls
By Billy Tea
Ever since the term "String of Pearls" was coined by a team of experts at
United States-based consultancy Booz Allen in 2004, journalists and academics
have overplayed China's supposedly malevolent involvement with countries along
its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), which stretch from the South China Sea
to the Indian Ocean.
For them it was easy to believe that China, a country once known more for its
bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and one-child population control
policy than its strategic might, had a hidden strategy to build military bases
along its SLOC. Now, with the recent announcement that China plans to increase
its military budget by 12.7% year-on-year, the "String of Pearls" strategy is
expected to receive new critical attention and commentary.
There is still scant concrete evidence that China is currently or in the near
future planning to build and maintain military bases along its SLOC. Indeed, to
date the controversial theory is based more on speculation than fact. According
to the 2005 Washington Post article that galvanized the debate, the "String of
Pearls" refers to China's supposed aim to leverage diplomatic and commercial
ties to build strategic bases stretching from the Middle East to southern China
in order to protect its energy interests as well as "broader security
A map taken from the original Booz Allen report shows that China is intimately
involved with countries along its SLOC in the Indian Ocean, including
Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In the Washington Post article,
China was said to be building a container port facility at Chittagong,
Bangladesh but at the same time was "seeking much more extensive naval and
In Myanmar, China was supposedly building naval bases and had established
electronic intelligence gathering facilities on the nearby Coco islands in the
Bay of Bengal . At Hainan Island, the supposed first in the chain of
strategic pearls off the coast of China, the article said China was being
allowed to "project air and sea power". Moreover, based on the Booz Allen map,
China was said to be establishing a naval base and surveillance facilities in
Viewing a map of China's SLOC, there is certainly a correlation between China's
relations with these countries and its energy security policy. Nearly 80% of
China's fuel is imported, mostly from the Middle East and North Africa, and
those shipments must travel through several strategic "choke points" along the
way, including through the particularly narrow Strait of Malacca. But
correlation does not always signify a causal effect.
The "String of Pearls" theory is based partially on the fact that China
possesses one of the world's largest commercial shipping fleets and relies
heavily on international maritime commerce. Energy imports carried on tankers
from the Persian Gulf and Africa traverse often treacherous regions, including
the threat of long-range pirates operating from Somalia. In accordance with
those threats, China has developed diplomatic, economic and military relations
with respective Indian Ocean countries. However, it is a large hypothetical
leap to assert these relations are driven by a longer-term desire to construct
actual military bases along its SLOC.
Ever since the publication of the Washington Post's alarmist article,
journalists and researchers have hyped China's intentions in the Indian Ocean.
For example, Commander Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri, a research fellow at New
Delhi's National Maritime Foundation, penned a paper in February 2010 entitled:
"Chinese Quest for a Naval Base in the Indian Ocean - Possible Options for
China" that weighs and outlines China's supposed "global power projection
thinking". Retired Indian army Brigadier S K Chatterji painted a more
threatening portrait of China's involvement with South Asian countries in his
September 2010 article "Chinese String of Pearls could Choke India".
In analyzing China's supposed strategic "pearls", three key characteristics
stand out. First and foremost, China does have some involvement in the
identified ports. But with the exception of Sri Lanka's Hambantota and perhaps
Myanmar's Sittwe, they are used not only by China and there are currently no
signs whatsoever of any developments for future military purposes.
Second, while there is no denying that China has an interest in building
relations with strategically located countries, it is important to understand
the great power context these countries face. To openly side with China over
other regional powers, including India and the United States, would be
extremely risky diplomacy for these smaller countries.
Indeed, in today's globalized world, choosing one great power's side over
another's unnecessarily limits countries' economic and political options.
That's especially true for less-developed countries like Myanmar, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka - all of which are reliant on foreign trade, aid and
investment and for development purposes need all they can get. In the current
geopolitical context, countries stand to gain the most by subtly playing great
power off one another, rather than committing to one in particular.
Third, government officials in the respective "pearl" countries have openly
repudiated reports they have given China any preferential treatment and that
Beijing is quietly building and/or planning to build military bases in their
Hainan Island, located off China's coast in the South China Sea and often
referred to as the first pearl in the chain, has often been at the center of
this debate. In 2008, the United Kingdom-based Daily Telegraph newspaper
claimed that China had built a secret underground nuclear submarine base at
Yulin Naval Base on the southern tip of Hainan.
The report followed on US estimates that China would have five operational
nuclear submarines, each capable of carrying 12 JL-2 nuclear missiles, by 2010.
 Because Hainan island is China's sovereign territory, there has been no
denial that Beijing maintains a military base there. Whether or not the base is
dedicated more to securing China's SLOC or asserting its territorial claims in
the South China Sea is less clear.
Bangladesh's Chittagong port is the country's principal seaport, currently
handling around 92% of its import-export trade. The cash-strapped government in
Dhaka does not have the finances needed to modernize the port and China, a long
standing ally, recently agreed to help fund upgrades.  Bangladeshi
authorities along with their Chinese counterparts set out an $8.7 billion
development plan to raise bulk cargo handling capacity to 100 million tons and
containers handling of three million 20 feet equivalent unit containers
annually by 2055.  The ambitious plan also involves the development of a
deep sea port and a road connecting Bangladesh to China via Myanmar. 
Because Chittagong port handles the majority of the country's trade, the scheme
would appear to make rational business sense from China's perspective and the
planned new connecting roadway. In 2010, India, Nepal and Bhutan also received
Bangladesh's approval to use the port for trade. Bangladesh Foreign Minister
Dipu Mani said in March last year he had tried to woo China into a similar
agreement, but as of 2011 there has not been any development suggesting China
will use the port for its trade. 
The strengthening of Sino-Bangladeshi relations is a matter of strategic
concern for both India and the US. Mani has stated publicly that China's
involvement in building a deep sea port was only for economic purposes. He said
that Bangladesh was acting as a "bridge" between China and India and would
never let its territory be used for military attacks.  Prime Minister Sheikh
Hasina said that the plans were part of her government's strategy to connect
Bangladesh to the greater Asian region in order to develop its markets and
promote economic growth "in the interest of the people of this country." 
Myanmar's Sittwe port, a small facility considered another of China's "pearl",
is situated approximately 265 kilometers south of Chittagong. However, it was
India - not China - that agreed to a contract with Myanmar in April 2009 for
the development of the so-called Kaladan Transport Project, which includes
plans for the development of the Sittwe port. The Indian company Essar Projects
is currently building a coastal port at Sittwe and a river jetty at Paletwa.
As part of the same project, an additional 120 kilometers of road will be built
in Myanmar from the river terminal in Paletwa to the India-Myanmar border in
the northeast. The project is scheduled for completion in three years at a cost
of between $75-$120 million, which will be financed entirely by New Delhi.
Both countries hope that the project will boost trade links between ports on
India's eastern seaboard and Myanmar's western Arakan (Rakhine) State. From
there, goods will be shipped along the Kaladan River from its confluence near
Sittwe to Paletwa in Myanmar's Chin State and by road to India's Mizoram State,
which will provide an alternative route for the transport of goods to India's
China is using the current port at Sittwe but its main interest is in the
Kyaukphyu port in Rakine state and its access to the Bay of Bengal in order to
pipe oil and gas from the Middle East and Africa to its land-locked southern
and western hinterlands. Beijing is currently building two parallel oil and gas
pipelines that will connect Kyaukphyu port to the Chinese city of Kunming in
southern Yunnan province.