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China: from a String of Pearls to the Maritime Silk Route

Much like its Russian ally to the north, China has over the past decade gained a reputation for geopolitical infamy. From support for ‘rogue regimes’ to its recent island building measures in the South China Sea, China has shown it is not afraid to get its hands dirty in the pursuit of national interests. Another contentious issue has been its so called ‘String of Pearls’ project in which it allegedly sought covert access to port and maritime facilities along its hydro-highway from Hainan Island across the Indian Ocean, for military purposes.

The CCP has been at pains to emphasize its ‘Peaceful Rise’ however, denying a strategic interest in these locations and instead pointing towards the mutual benefit to be derived from continent wide trade through the development of maritime facilities in the Indian Ocean and beyond. These ‘infrastructural alliances’ have to be seen within the context of the logic of great power politics however – Beijing is attempting a return to its historic position as a dominant power in the Asian political sphere and the means for achieving appear to be firstly economic – buying influence by playing the long game of commercial and political integration, facilitating its future emergence as another of history’s ‘unintended’ empires, which may well indeed include a few militarized pearls along the way one day.

A String of Pearls

The immediate background to China’s rise lies in the economic reforms made by Deng Xiaoping after 1979: annual GDP growth has averaged 9% per year since with military spending around 2% of GDP according to official figures. China’s new-found destiny as a seafaring nation has stirred unease among its neighbors as well as other distant powers, a result of significant naval and military procurements compounded by clear strategic ambitions such as the contentious island building programs in the South China Sea.

In 2005 an internal memo from the US consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton was leaked. This document contained a colorful geo-strategic perspective on Chinese maritime ambitions in the Indian Ocean – the “String of Pearls” strategy was born. This saw Beijing investing in, and constructing, a number of alleged ‘dual-use’ facilities in countries along its sea lines of communication (SLOC). Ross Rustici and Christopher Yung write that the String of Pearls strategy entails “secret access agreements and covert development of commercial facilities to support later military use, with the ultimate objective of being able to support major combat operations against India and to dominate the Indian Ocean Region.”

Beyond the String of Pearls, it became clear that China not only sought to project power into the Indian Ocean, but had ambitions reaching deep into the Pacific via investment in and construction of a blue water fleet allowing China to ‘break out’ of the first and second ‘island chains’ and into the Pacific proper. China’s naval ambitions have become notable, evidenced by a series of incidents including the embarrassing episode in which a PLAN submarine surfaced dangerously close to US Carrier battle group in 2007. Chinese purchase of and outfitting of an ex-Soviet aircraft-carrier, as well as a series of stand-offs with other regional powers have done little to dampen accusations of China’s belligerent intentions.

China’s financing and construction of projects such as the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, the container facility at Chittagong in Bangladesh, and facilities in Myanmar, looked ominous, especially to India where criticism of the “String of Pearls” concept has been most intense. India sees China attempting to draw a net around the subcontinent, a sort of containment strategy. This has played significant role in facilitating India’s strategic dialogue with the United States. Added to the port-project paranoia are airstrips on Woody Island and Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, an alleged electronic eavesdropping site on the Coco Islands as well as that ominous first pearl; the underground nuclear submarine base at Hainan Island.

Recent thinking on the matter however, has seen a softening of perspective as to Beijing’s intentions and rationale for these ports and harbors – could they in fact be what the Chinese claim them to be; infrastructure designed solely to facilitate and enhance intra-regional trade?

Naval Logistics

A recent NDU report titled Not An Idea We Have to Shun: Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements for the Twenty First Century notes that it would not make sense for China to pursue the infamous String of Pearls strategy of seeking “covert access to commercial ports” for use as facilities designed to support military operations. The authors argue however “that China’s expanding global interests will generate increased demands for out-of-area naval operations” such as China’s anti-piracy efforts, and identify six potential logistics models that could be employed in the future as China’s overseas interests increase:

The “Pit Stop” model is what China currently uses to support its Gulf of Aden counter-piracy operations. It relies solely on access to existing commercial ports, and is an expensive, ad hoc, and limited means of resupplying naval vessels.

The “Lean Colonial Model” illustrated by Germany’s pre-World War I bases in the Pacific is characterized by commercial driven facilities designed not to project military power, but to support commercial activities overseas and enhance a country’s image as an international power.

The “Dual Use Logistics Facility” is characterized by its light footprint, its emphasis on providing logistics support to overseas non-traditional security missions, and its dual commercial and military nature.

The “String of Pearls” model is similar to the “Dual Use Logistics Facility” except that it would include secret access agreements and covert development of commercial facilities to support later military use, with the ultimate objective of being able to support major combat operations against India and to dominate the Indian Ocean Region.

The “Warehouse Model” fashioned after British inter-war bases in the Pacific is largely a one-stop shopping military base where the country’s military can resupply and repair ships, store ordnance and other material, station troops, and essentially warehouse all of a forward operating forces’ needs.

“Model USA” is the American military’s current military logistics support system with a vast network of military bases, large numbers of auxiliary supply ships, and ad hoc access to logistics chains worldwide.

The authors determine that only one model fits the pattern of Chinese naval behaviour going forward; the ‘Dual Use Logistics Facility’. They note that “China’s expanding global interests will generate increased demands for out-of-area naval operations” such as efforts to secure energy supplies and maintain its SLOC’s, as well as other operations of a ‘non-traditional’ nature such as the maintenance of anti-piracy operations, humanitarian assistance or non-combatant evacuation operations (NEOs) such as the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Yemen recently. They note that China will probably seek to ‘acquire’ at least 1 ‘dual use facility’ to replace its current ‘pit stop model’ which is fraught with limitations.

Kings College professor Geoffrey Till writes in his 2013 Asia’s Naval Expansion that China’s defence spending has been consistent with the general trends of naval modernization in East Asia since the end of the Cold War – its higher levels of military spending are relative to its much higher levels of economic growth compared to the other nations of Southeast Asia and can therefore not serve as a prime indicator of hegemonic aspirations.

China has long maintained that the “String of Pearls” strategy is a myth, evidenced by the fact that no military build up has taken place, covert or otherwise on the respective locations. Its own naval patterns in the 10 years since the doctrine came to light have shown that not even its counter-piracy operation has relied upon any of the ‘pearls’ for support. China’s turbulent relations with Myanmar and recently Sri Lanka, as well as the fact that the ‘pearls’ are within striking distance of the Indian air force and missile ranges detracts further credibility of the String of Pearls strategy.

But this view has in turn been challenged. James R. Holmes, co-author of Red Star over the Pacific, writes that just because China has not yet acquired a naval base in the Indian Ocean, doesn’t mean it won’t tomorrow, and cautions “beware of linear thinking in the non-linear, topsy-turvy realm of international competition”. Credible reports of discussions involving an actual Chinese naval base in Djibouti only serve to reinforce this perspective.

Geoeconomics – 21世纪海上丝绸之路

Susan Shirk in her seminal China: Fragile Superpower explains that the structural challenges faced by the ideologically bankrupt Communist Party often create a situation where domestic pressures are an unusually powerful factor in foreign policy formulation. This dynamic threatens ‘the logic of strategy’ according to strategist Edward Luttwak.

While powerful displays of military power legitimate the Chinese sense of power and destiny, and pander to a heady nationalism, a certain logic, mentioned above, begins to break down. Luttwak writes of “the inherent incompatibility between the concurrently rapid growth of China’s economic capacity and military strength and diplomatic influence”, or, if you want to turn your almost double-digit economic growth into influence, and maintain it, then stop force feeding the military and scaring everyone in the neighbourhood. The result has been an increase of counter moves by regional states finding common cause in hedging against a rising China. Luttwak calls it China’s “acquired strategic deficiency syndrome”. The US has been a beneficiary of this situation as those turning away from China look to America for support.

Within this context it may be that Beijing is attempting to take command of the narrative via the reformulation of its ambitions away from the realm of geopolitics and into that of a purely commercial framework, reminiscent of the good old days of Peaceful Rise. A further indication of a shift in thinking was the November 2014 opening of a think-tank in Arlington Virginia – The Institute for China-America Studies, part of China’s National Institute for South China Sea studies. Its purpose; to “make an academic case for China’s vaguely backed assertion that most of the strategically vital waters are within its domain, despite rival claims by South East Asian countries”. This effort alludes to China goal of seeking a resolution of the South China Sea disputes within the context of a dynamic interpretation of international law – or in the case of Beijing’s proposed ‘One Belt, One Road’, within the context of commercial intercourse.

Jacok Stokes writes that “One Belt, One Road calls for increased diplomatic coordination, standardized and linked trade facilities, free trade zones and other trade facilitation policies, financial integration promoting the renminbi, and people-to-people cultural education programs throughout nations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.” – an ambitious program of Eurasian integration indeed. Funding for the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative will come from the $50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the $40 billion New Silk Road Fund, and funding from the BRICS New Development Bank.

It is significant that the maritime component of ‘One Belt, One Road’ concept was first announced by President Xi Jinping in the Indonesian Parliament in 2013. The 21st century “Maritime Silk Route” concept appeared firstly as an attempt to woo ASEAN members into greater commercial intercourse with the PRC, with the economic benefits serving as a possible means to make them think twice before challenging Beijing politically. William Yale for example writes that “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”. Xi later expanded the maritime silk road concept to include interested parties across the Indian ocean littoral, the Middle East, Africa and up to Europe. Xi envisions the project to benefit up-to 4.4 billion people in 65 countries with trade along the ‘road’ reaching $2.5 trillion within the decade.

The basis for China’s maritime silk route narrative is the historically vague idea that “Since ancient times, Southeast Asia has been an important hub along the historical ‘maritime silk road,’ a commercial route on which China sold its silk and other commodities to other countries.”

Besides the fact that Silk was traded primarily via overland trade routes, declining in importance in the 5th century AD, it was the seafaring Arabs as well as Indian traders that dominated the maritime route connecting the Mediterranean to the Chinese coast via the Spice Islands and Indian Ocean trade routes, bringing in prized spices, medicinal products, fragrances and foodstuffs in exchange for Chinese silver until the trade promotion policies of the Song Dynasty shifted the balance after the 12th century. Or as a sinologist put it to me “the concept of the Maritime Silk Route has been for ages embedded in the murky brew of Confucian Sino-Centrism (manifesting as artificially inflated notions of Chinese cultural, civilizational and intellectual supremacy over so-called ‘barbarian’ tributary states) for which Chinese silks – and not Arabian & Indian spices – always remain a more ‘politically correct’ narrative.”

The “Maritime Silk Route” initiative in effect provides a benign and lucrative cover for future Chinese engagements in the Indian Ocean littoral. Morgan Clemens writes that “some Chinese military authors have gone so far as to call the route of the Maritime Silk Road the crucial strategic direction of China’s rise.”

In this regard, it is interesting that China’s statements on the nature of the “Maritime Silk Route” are consistent with what the authors identify as the “Lean Colonial Model” above (minus large number of stationed troops) – the ‘pearls’ being facilities designed not to project military power, but to support commercial activities overseas and enhance a country’s image as an international power. The steps from Lean Colonial Model to Dual Use Logistics Facility to Model USA are easily taken given the right strategic environment and questions of intent: a new war between India and Pakistan could see an enhanced and permanent Chinese naval presence in Gwadar, or as the NDU report authors hint at- Karachi which is better equipped to cater to the logistical requirements of naval support. Pakistan has in the past indicated its interest in a Chinese naval presence at Gwadar though.

But turning economic leadership into political or military advantage will not be easy, however. Prem Mahadevan writes that “in the medium-term, it is unlikely that many IOR [Indian Ocean Region] states would acquiesce to a creeping militarization of their territorial waters by permitting a permanent Chinese naval presence.” Many states in the region, such as Burma, have indicated the undesirability of a stronger Chinese military presence. But as Franz Stefan Gady notes – in the long-term, however “many governments in the region may ultimately consent to an increased Chinese naval presence in their waters in order not to jeopardize trade deals with Beijing.”

But what does it mean for a China that is trying to attain regional leadership while maintaining that the initiative is “not a tool of geopolitics” but rather a program of “peaceful economic development absent political strings” ? One clue to shed light on the de facto nature of ‘One Belt, One Road’ is the historical nature of the state, and state power itself. Charles Tilly famously wrote that “war made the state and the state made war” – the cultivation of power is inherent in the DNA of the state, and as Chinese military expansion makes clear – future war cannot be discounted. Or as Chinese provocations in Japanese and Vietnamese territorial waters demonstrate, Beijing is not afraid to provide opportunities for escalation.

China also has a clear profit motive in the affair – “We expect increasing exports of the One belt, One Road countries will create positive feedback loops to sustain the growth of Chinese exports,” noted a Barclays Research report. Exporting industrial excess, as well as reaping the political gains to be made once loans are called in, but not paid, undoubtedly forms part of Chinese calculations.

Considering Chinese policies holistically, we might agree with Edward Luttwak that the post-Cold War environment creates a situation where states operate according to geoeconomics which he defines as “the logic of war in the grammar of commerce”. Luttwak further writes “As territorial entities, spatially rather than functionally defined, states cannot follow a commercial logic that would ignore their own boundaries.” This strips away any illusion of China providing a sort of benign leadership role devoid of political calculations. The first order of business for a state is internal order and a degree of commercial stability, thereafter security ambitions dominate. This was of course clear in the case of German unification in 1871, followed by economic growth which the British a run for their money, followed by the Great War.

Pundits have argued that the United States created an ‘unintended empire’ through its promotion of global capitalism, coupled with the pursuit of its national interest. In China’s case one can argue that the plan is for the flag to follow trade which appears consistent with Marxist thought that politics is the continuation of economics by other means. seemed to give the game away when it wrote that “While the Marshall Plan was crucial to Western European countries’ rise from the ashes of WWII, it also helped the United States to establish the U.S. dollar-centered Bretton Woods System, which practically ensured the absolute dominance of the U.S. currency. But China does not want that. As always, China calls for multi-polarization and equal conversations on all international matters.”

“One Belt, One Road” suggests a long term program of economic integration followed by degrees of political influence, or deference if we were to use the ‘tributary’ system of hierarchical relations which characterized China’s historic relations with lesser powers during its long history, as a guide. Beijing has already indicated that it rejects the Westphalian system of equal sovereign states, rendering “equal conversations on all international matters” to be a fallacy of composition made worst by China’s refusal to address the concerns of the Philippines seeking UN arbitration over the South China Sea disputes. Henry Kissinger’s recent book on World Order provides a lucid overview of regional order according to China.

Reef seizing, Island building measures, an aircraft carrier purchase, the J20 stealth fighter, Air Defense Identification Zones, provocative oil rig intrusions, are all signs of a state, and its people having a different conception of itself than 20 years ago. While official Chinese military spending as a percentage of GDP are in some measure reflective of regional trends since the end of the Cold War, the rhetoric and bellicosity since 2008 is remarkable. Did the Chinese believe that the 2008 Financial Crisis marked an inflection point in power relations between an American led Asian order and one led by China? If they did then we don’t blame them for suddenly ignoring Deng Xiaoping’s advice of biding one’s time and maintaining a low profile.

The feasibility of politically motivated economic initiatives are in question, however. Efforts such as Russia’s Eurasian Union are proving to be more rhetoric than reality. China’s “One Belt, One Road” may well be the stubborn ideological remnant of communist planning imbued with a post-war Bretton woods like optimism in which Beijing hopes that its cash reserves – high interest loans, not aid – could prove a worthwhile investment for the regions affected in the short term, and profitable, both economically and politically for China in the long term. If it works, the economic and for Beijing, strategic integration of Eurasia may well be the much needed pillar for the emergence of a 21st century Chinese ‘unintended’ empire.’

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