Tag Archives: String of Pearls

The Concept of ‘Reach’ in Grasping China’s Active Defense Strategy: Part II

This publication was originally featured on Bharat Shakti and is republished with permission. It may be read in its original form here.

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Ret.)

Editor-in-Chief’s Note

Part I of this two-part article introduced the geoeconomic and geostrategic imperatives that shape China’s geopolitical drives. It also presented the overarching concept of “reach” as an aid to understanding the international import of China’s military strategy. Read Part I here.

In this second and concluding part of the article series the author explores Chinese strategic intent and its ramifications. The article provides an account of the naval facilities China is promoting or constructing on disputed islands among littoral states of the Indian Ocean; assesses China’s economic linkages with African nations; and projects the growth curve of the Chinese Navy, all of which are important to keep in view while analyzing the trajectory of Chinese geo-strategic intent.

By emphasizing the factor of temporal strategic-surprise (in contrast to spatial surprise), the author offers clues to understanding the links between China’s military strategy and her geopolitical international game-moves as they are being played out within a predominantly maritime paradigm. As in the famous Chinese game of Go—perhaps a more apt analogy than chess—the People’s Republic is putting in place the pieces that will shape her desired geopolitical space. The author explores the spatial and temporal dimensions of the Chinese strategy and the related vulnerabilities of the opposing Indian establishment.

In his 2006 dissertation written at the US Army War College then-Lt. Col Christopher J. Pehrson, USAF, termed the Chinese geostrategy the “String of Pearls.” This expression, first used in January 2005 in a report to U.S. military officials prepared by the U.S. consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton, caught the attention of the world’s imagination. Pehrson posited China as a slightly sinister, rising global power, playing a new strategic game, as grandiose in its concept, formulation and execution as the “Great Game” of the 19th century. Despite vehement and frequent denials by Chinese leadership of any such geostrategic machinations designed at the accumulation of enhanced geopolitical and geoeconomic power and influence, the expression rapidly embedded itself into mainstream consciousness.

Image Courtesy: Chinausfocus.com
China’s One Road, One Belt economic infrastructure initiative. (Chinausfocus.com)

As a net result, for over a decade, China has chafed under the opprobrium heaped upon it for a concept that (to be fair) it had never once articulated by the state. However, in a brilliant rebranding exercise by Beijing in 2014, the world’s attention is being increasingly drawn away from the negative connotations associated with the phrase String of Pearls and towards the more benign-sounding 21st century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt, also known as “One Road, One Belt.” This presents an alternative expression, while it nevertheless covers essentially the very same geostrategic maritime game-plays that Colonel Pehrson explained a decade ago. The new expression emphasizes transregional inclusiveness and evokes the romance of a shared pan-Asian history with the implied promise of a reestablishment of the economic prosperity that the Asian continent’s major civilizational and socio-cultural entities, namely China and India, enjoyed until the 18th century.

Each “pearl” in the String of Pearls construct—or in more contemporary parlance, each “node” along the Maritime Silk Route—is a link in a chain of Chinese geopolitical and geostrategic influence. For example, Hainan Island, with its recently upgraded military facilities and sheltered submarine base, is a pearl/node.

It is by no means necessary for a line joining these pearls/nodes to encompass mainland China in one of the concentric ripples typified by the Island Chains strategy. In fact, since the Maritime Silk Route is a true maritime construct, it is highly unlikely that the nodes would do so.

Image Courtesy: chinahighlights.com
The location of Hainana Province, China. (chinahighlights.com)

Other pearls/nodes include the recent creation of artificial islands in the Paracel and Spratly islands incorporating, inter alia, the ongoing construction/upgrade of airstrips on Woody Island—located in the Paracel Islands, some 300 nm east of Vietnam—as also on Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. Additional pearls/nodes have been obtained through Chinese investments in Cambodia and China’s continuing interest in Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra.

China’s development of major maritime infrastructure abroad—the container terminal in Chittagong, Bangladesh; the Maday crude oil terminal in Myanmar’s Kyakpyu port; the development of ports such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Bagamoyo in Tanzania, Beira in Mozambique, Walvis Bay in Namibia, Kribi in Cameroon, the Djibouti Multipurpose Port (DMP), and the offer to even develop Chabahar in Iran (checkmated by a belated but vigorous Indian initiative), along with the successful establishment of a military (naval) base in Djibouti—all constitute yet more pearls/nodes. The development of an atoll in the Seychelles, oil infrastructure projects in Sudan and Angola, and the financing of newly discovered massive gas finds in offshore areas of Mozambique, Tanzania and the Comoros, are similarly recently acquired pearls/nodes. Even Australia yields a pearl/node, as does South Africa, thanks to Chinese strategic investment in mining in general and uranium-mining companies in particular, in both countries.

Chinese maritime policing vessel.
Chinese maritime policing vessel. (SCMP.com)

From an Indian perspective, China’s new strategic maritime-constructs (by whichever name) are simultaneously operative on a number of levels, several of which are predominantly economic in nature and portend nothing more than fierce competition. At the geostrategic level, however, the economy is at its apex and is China’s and India’s greatest strength and greatest vulnerability, at the same time; therefore, the economy is the centerpiece of the policy and strategy of both countries. This is precisely why, as the geographical competition space between India and China coincide in the Indian Ocean, there is a very real possibility of competition transforming into conflict, particularly as the adverse effects of climate change on resources and the available land area becomes increasingly more evident.

“Reach” has both spatial and temporal dimensions. The spatial facets of China’s geopolitical moves are evident, as illustrated in the preceding String of Pearls discussion. It is critical for India’s geopolitical and military analysts to also understand the temporal facets of this construct. The terms short term, medium term and long term are seldom used with any degree of digital precision. A nation tends to keep its collective “eye on the ball” in the short term and, by corollary, tends to assign far less urgency to something that is assigned to the long term. This ill-defined differentiation is how strategic surprise may be achieved in the temporal plane. For instance, in China, the short term generally implies 30 to 50 years. This is an epoch that is far in excess of what in India passes as the long term. Consequently, India fails to pay as close attention to developments in China as she might have were the developments to unfold in a duration corresponding to India’s own short term of 2-5 years. This distinction permits China to achieve strategic surprise, and this is as true of military strategy as it is of grand strategy and geoeconomics.

On the one hand, it should be remembered that these strategic constructs are not only about maritime infrastructure projects, involving the construction of ports, pipelines and airfields, though these developments constitute their most obvious and visibly worrisome manifestation. The strategy is equally about new, renewed or reinvigorated geopolitical and diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and nation states across a very wide geographical swath (including the African littoral and the island nations of both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean). On the other hand, China’s strategic maritime constructs have some important military spin-offs, which closely align to the furtherance of geostrategic reach. Thus, by developing friendly ports of call (if not bases), facilities and favorable economic dependencies in the various pearls/nodes, the logistics involved in the event of an engagement in maritime power-projection are greatly eased.

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Type 904 (Dayun Class) Transport Ship (globalmil.com)

Supplementing the pearls/nodes are the Chinese Navy’s five impressive stores/ammunition supply ships of the Dayun Class (Type 904) and six underway replenishment tankers of the Qiandaohu Class (Type 903A). In addition, China requires ground control stations to meet her satellite-based needs of real-time surveillance. Unlike the United States, China simply does not have adequate ground control/tracking stations within the Indian Ocean to affect requisite ground control and real-time downlinking of her remote-sensing satellites. This forces her to deploy a number of ships (the Yuanwang Class) for this purpose. These constitute a severe vulnerability that China certainly needs to overcome. One way to do so is to establish infrastructure and acceptability along the IOR island states and along the East African littoral, as China is currently attempting to do.

The principal lack in the Chinese strategy to provide military substance to the country’s geoeconomic and geostrategic reach comes in the form of integral air power through aircraft carriers. China is rapidly learning that while one can buy or build an aircraft carrier in only a couple of years, it takes many more years to develop the human, material, logistic and doctrinal skills required for competent and battle worthy carrier-borne aviation. For nearly a decade now, China has demonstrated her ability to sustain persistent military (naval) presence in the Indian Ocean—albeit in a low threat environment. Combat capability is, of course, quite different from mere presence or even the ability to maintain anti-piracy forces, since the threat posed to China by disparate groups of poorly armed, equipped and led pirates can hardly be equated with that posed by a powerful and competent military adversary in times of conflict.

Despite the impressive growth of the Chinese Navy and the vigor of the Chinese military strategy, China may not, in the immediate present, have the combat capability to deploy for any extended period of time in support of its geoeconomic and geostrategic reach were they to be militarily contested by a major navy. However, as James Holmes points out, if India were to continue to cite shortfalls in current Chinese capability and conclude that it will take the PLA Navy at least fifteen years to station a standing, battle worthy naval squadron in the Indian Ocean, this would lull Indians into underplaying Chinese determination and the speed of that country’s military growth. This would carry the very real consequent possibility of India suffering a massive strategic surprise. Is that something that India can afford?

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

‘Sea-based’ PLA Navy may not need ‘String of Pearls’

In May 2015, China released it biennial 2014 Defence White Paper titled ‘China’s Military Strategy’. It indicates that the PLA Navy would undertake a more proactive protection of its interests in ‘open waters’, which implies – albeit implicitly – the waters of the Indian Ocean. The White Paper also brings to the fore PLA Navy’s strategy for the ‘sustenance’ of the forward-deployed naval platforms in these waters through “strategic prepositioning”. What precisely does this mean?

Until lately, strategic analysts worldwide were smitten by the concept of ‘String of Pearls’ propounded in 2005 by Booz Allen Hamilton – a US based think-tank. The scholarly extrapolation of China’s increasing geopolitical and strategic presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) led to the prognosis that its port and maritime infrastructure projects in the IOR were precursors to China eventually establishing military bases in the region. In case of an armed conflict, such overseas military bases would be valuable for China to protect its strategic interests in the interests, particularly its crude-oil imports. These bases could provide logistics support the Chinese maritime-military forces in the region inter alia in terms of machinery and equipment spare-parts, technical services and ammunition depots, besides general replenishment of fuel, food and water. Analysts in India generally took the lead in the academic inquiry into the potential of the Chinese military bases in the IOR.

China's Sting of Pearls in Indian Ocean
China’s Sting of Pearls in Indian Ocean

Rattled by the String of Pearls ‘theory’, Beijing decried the military-strategic connotation of its financial and technical assistance to the IOR countries; and devoted much intellectual capital to prove that its intent was only economic and commercial. Among its efforts in this direction, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) published the June 2013 Blue Book called ‘Development Report in the Indian Ocean’. The Blue Book said that China has no maritime (-military) strategy for the Indian Ocean. The Maritime Silk Road (MSR) concept initiated by President Xi Jinping later that year in October 2013 was used to reinforce the message that China sought only economic objectives in the IOR.

However, analysts and the media – particularly in India – persisted upon China’s doctrinal intent to develop military bases in the IOR, averring that the MSR was only a ‘reincarnation’ of the ‘String of Pearls’ concept. Notably, the Indians are not the only ones wary of the potential of PLA Navy’s use of the maritime facilities in the IOR. Notwithstanding the strategic convergence between Indonesia’s ‘global maritime axis’ and China’s MSR concepts, eminent Indonesian statesmen have advised Jakarta to be cautious since the maritime infrastructure being constructed through MSR could be used by China for ‘military penetration’.

In July 2015, news-reports indicated that Maldives was encouraging foreign entities to own its island territories to undertake land reclamation. Coming amidst the growing anxieties caused by China’s controversial “island-building” activities in the South China Sea, this reinforced the theory of ‘Chinese military bases’ in the Indian Ocean. Even while Maldives is under severe strain of the long-term effects of sea-level rise caused by climate change, its government is unlikely to be ignorant of the near-term adverse geopolitical and security consequences of permitting Chinese military bases on its territory. Besides, it is most unlikely that the Chinese would need such bases anyway.

Since 2011, China has been seeking a hub-and-spoke logistics support agreements with the IOR countries like Seychelles and Djibouti. Undeniably, therefore, China is seeking access facilities in the Indian Ocean, whether known by the ‘String of Pearls’ nomenclature, or fructified through the ‘MSR Concept’. Some more bilateral pacts may be added over time. However, these are not potential Chinese ‘military bases’, but agreements for peace-time replenishment of fuel, food and water for Chinese naval units, something that even India has forged with many countries, including those in the western Pacific littoral.

China’s intent to sustain its naval forces in the Indian Ocean through the concept of ‘sea-basing’ has not been widely noted. The concept refers to a naval capability to undertake overseas military missions of expeditionary nature without reliance on land-based operational logistics and command and control infrastructure, either of home bases or the overseas bases. The concept was developed by the US expeditionary forces, largely due to the increasing constraints to maintain overseas military bases, besides for catering to the emerging concepts of amphibious warfare.

This high probability of the PLA Navy’s resort to ‘sea-basing’ concept is supported by its July 2015 induction of the first ‘Mobile Landing Platform’ (MLP) similar to the US design. The U.S. expeditionary forces are themselves new to the MLP concept. China is also known to be building naval Logistic Support Ships with roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) design and bow and stern ramps optimised for amphibious operations.

The number of the PLA Navy’s advanced underway replenishment ships is also increasing. Notably, media reports indicate that in June 2015, China launched its fifth Type 903A replenishment ship, and more are under construction. With these six new replenishment vessels added to the older fleet tankers, the PLA Navy is clearly being given the means to support distant missions in the IOR.

PLA Navy's Type 093A Large Replenishment Ship
PLA Navy’s Type 093A Large Replenishment Ship

PLA Navy’s own increasing sea-based logistics capability could be supplemented by the capacity of state-owned commercial ships, following the implementation of the new guidelines for building merchant ships to conform to naval standards. These guidelines called “Technical Standards for New Civilian Ships to Implement National Defense Requirements” were approved by the Chinese government in June 2015. The guidelines lay down not only the provisions to requisition civilian ships for naval missions, but also how future construction of Chinese merchant vessels would need to adhere to naval specifications.

China is also formulating a ‘National Defense Transport Law’ to cover the additional financial costs of shipbuilding and insurance for employment for military missions. These commercial vessels are quite numerous. According to statistics from China’s Ministry of Transportation, in 2014, about 2,600 ships are capable of ocean transport, which represents a major element of asymmetry with any major navy operating in the Indian Ocean. The US Navy’s 31 Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) of its Military Sealift Command (MSC) pales in comparison.

The concept of ‘military base’ necessary for executing a full-fledged armed conflict may be a thing of the past. Politico-military manoeuvres in short-of-war situations are more contemporary. Therefore, in the foreseeable future, a maritime-military strategy that combines ‘peacetime replenishment’ with ‘sea-basing’ may be more than adequate for Beijing to meet its national-strategic objectives in the IOR.

Captain Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD is the Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Indian Navy, the NMF or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com.

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China’s Maritime Silk Road Gamble

This is republished from the Johns Hopkins SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

Ever since Xi Jinping announced the creation of a Maritime Silk Road in an October 2013 speech to the Indonesian parliament, China’s vision for “one road” running through Southeast and South Asia has driven a significant portion of Chinese foreign policy in its periphery. This has led to both the controversial Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (announced in the same speech) and complementary investment funds such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank, as well as high-level diplomatic visits by Chinese leaders to countries in the region. In addition, China sees its “Silk Road Economic Belt” among its Central Asian neighbors as indivisible from the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” as seen by China’s slogan 一带一路 (“one belt, one road”) and its public diplomacy effort to promote both policies together. All of this indicates that, like many Chinese foreign policy initiatives, the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is multi-pronged: it is intended to serve diplomatic, economic, and strategic purposes.

First and foremost, the Maritime Silk Road is designed to pacify neighboring countries threatened by China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Curiously, China has attempted to both aggravate tensions among its Southeast Asian neighbors and soothe them at the same time, contrary to its normal pattern of swinging back and forth between aggressive brinksmanship and diplomatic rapprochement (such as in China’s relationship with Taiwan or its cutting off and then reestablishing of military to military ties with the United States). Despite the idealistic claims of ‘peaceful economic development absent political strings’ made by Chinese leaders and state media about the Maritime Silk Road, China has continued unabated to strengthen its unilateral claim to vast maritime territory in the South China Sea, turning reefs and other undersea maritime features into full-fledged islands, complete with airstrips that could be used by the People’s Liberation Army.

Conversely, the Maritime Silk Road is also designed to cement relationships with countries that are tacitly friendly to China such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. This will be accomplished primarily through economic incentives like infrastructure development and trade deals. In this sense, the Maritime Silk Road not only stands side by side with the Silk Road Economic Belt, but also as part of a historical continuum that includes China’s past investment in maritime-related infrastructure, which has been referred to by some as a “String of Pearls” policy. If one wants to know what kind of infrastructure projects China will fund in the future, look to what it has done in the past: oil and natural gas links to Myanmar’s port in Sittwe, ports in Sri Lanka such as the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects, and the Pakistani port in Gwadar. Indeed, China and Malaysia have already announced a joint port project in Malacca. Meanwhile, China, which is already the largest trading partner for most countries in Southeast and South Asia, is also signing new free trade agreements with countries such as Sri Lanka.

Chinese infrastructure investment, intended primarily to strengthen China’s energy security and increase trade between China and its neighbors, will now get a huge boost with the creation of both the AIIB and more specialized investment vehicles such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank and the Silk Road Fund. While the AIIB has had the flashiest rollout with China contributing $50 billion USD to a planned $100 billion USD in capital, the other two funds are no slouches: the Silk Road Fund has plans for $40 billion USD in capital, while the Maritime Silk Road Bank hopes to attract $100 billion RMB in investment.

Finally, unmentioned in authoritative Chinese sources is that the Maritime Silk Road, and especially Chinese infrastructure investment, is implicitly intended to facilitate more frequent People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployments in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The PLAN needs reliable logistics chains across Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) throughout Southeast and South Asia; ships cannot go far without a reliable supply of fuel, food, and armaments. But for the foreseeable future, China is at a serious disadvantage in this regard: the US Navy and allied navies have such a preponderance of force and ability to project power throughout the region that the PLAN is ill-equipped to compete. Given the PLANs current capabilities, China’s logistics capacity would only be dependable during peacetime; they would not survive in a contested environment, particularly if the US decided to close off key chokepoints like the Malacca and Sunda Straits. Therefore, the first step to strengthen the PLAN’s capabilities is to build reliable logistical infrastructure in key friendly states, such as the aforementioned projects in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. These logistical links would still be quite vulnerable in a conflict scenario, given the tenuous relationship China would have with even putatively friendly countries if China went to war. Therefore, the primary benefit for the PLAN is to demonstrate presence in peacetime, and to show that it can operate far from its own shores.

The Maritime Silk Road, along with the attendant Silk Road Economic Belt, is truly a multi-headed dragon, so large that it is difficult to disaggregate its many parts. The most difficult challenge for China, however, will not be building infrastructure and signing trade deals—these are no doubt massive undertakings, but they are fundamentally instrumental tasks that will not receive much opposition from countries in the region. The more difficult objective for China is translating investment and trade into building a coalition of states in the region that align their values and foreign policy goals with those of China, and indeed identify with China at the expense of competitors like the US. China will likely find this kind of bandwagoning hard to pull off—when it comes down to it, the Maritime Silk Road may wash away like sand.

William Yale is the Director of Operations at CIMSEC, an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project, and a Research Associate at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.