Chinese Endgame on the Seas: String of Pearls

Image from Christopher J. Pehrson’s “String of Pearls: Meeting the challenge of China’s rising power across the Asian littoral”

The "String of Pearls" is a geopolitical theory regarding China’s rising maritime power through efforts to augment access to critical ports and airfields. Theoretically, this string of pearls stretches from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to energy exporting areas such as Africa and the Middle East. This expansion calls China’s relationships with the United States and key neighbors, such as India, into question.

China’s recent rapid economic development has led to heavy dependence on foreign energy sources; because of this, China relies on key sea lines of communication with large oil exporters, such as Africa and the Gulf States. In 2004, a U.S. Department of Defense report, “Energy Futures in Asia,” popularized the string of pearls theory. This report predicted that China would try to increase its naval presence in the Indian Ocean through establishing connections with friendly states in the region.

Chinese efforts to extend control over the South China Sea began when the U.S. withdrew forces from the Philippines, creating a power vacuum. China’s first “pearl” in the region is considered to be its highly developed naval base on Hainan Island, the base of Chinese control in the South China Sea. Other pearls in the region include Woody Island and the Spratly Islands.

Notable Chinese claims in the Indian Ocean include a shipping center in Hambantota, Sri Lanka and Gwadar, Pakistan. The port of Gwadar provides reciprocal benefit to both China and Pakistan. Gwadar is incredibly valuable to China because of its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz. For Pakistan, the port at Gwadar represents a necessary alternative to the port at Karachi, due to Karachi’s vulnerability due to closeness to India and resulting potential to be blockaded.

Other key “pearls” include Chittagong, Bangladesh, Port Sudan, and the Bagamoyo Port in Tanzania, which is currently being constructed.

According to Christopher J. Pehrson, lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force currently assigned to the air staff at the Pentagon, China has three large strategic concerns—”regime survival, territorial integrity, and domestic stability.” All three of these concerns are tied to the economy; in order to maintain its growing hegemony, China needs continued access to external sources of energy and raw materials. Historically, maritime connections have been China’s primary method of obtaining energy—economic motives may be governing China’s “String of Pearls” naval strategy.

Because China’s strategy has been diplomatic for observably economic reasons, the U.S. should be careful with its policy to avoid head-to-head conflict with China. China’s growing regional power calls the United States’ dominance in the area into question. Pehrson argues that the U.S. military should be instrumental in facilitating China’s “peaceful rise” through fostering “trust, transparency, and stability.” Obama-era policy in the region, known as “Pivot to Asia,” aimed to deepen the United States’ relationship with China in order to maintain U.S. interests in the area. Current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has protested Chinese expansion in the South China Sea; according to the Washington Post, Mattis said that the U.S. would welcome China’s rise if it's willing to play by the rules.

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