Current General Studies Magazine: "General Studies - II (International Relations Based Article)" August 2014

Current General Studies Magazine (August 2014)

General Studies - II (International Relations Based Article)

'The String of Pearls' and its Impact on India

Many in India believe that Beijing is building special relationships with India’s old foe Pakistan and Sri Lanka and is extending its reach down the Indian Ocean. China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy seems to be surrounding India and has given food for thought to many in New Delhi for quite some time now. Though India is trying to make a stronghold in South Asia, China seems to have been working consistently over the last four decades to strengthen its south Asian presence and fulfil its ‘String of Pearls’ policy, and that has many in India worried.

Christopher J. Pehrson, author of the book “String of Pearls: Meeting the challenge of china’s rising power across the Asian littoral”, says the ‘String of Pearls’ describes the manifestation of China’s rising geopolitical influence through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, develop special diplomatic relationships and modernize military forces that extend from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Arabian Gulf. (Source-

The String of Pearls refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication, which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan. The sea lines run through several major maritime choke points such as the Strait of Mandeb, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the Lombok Strait, as well as other strategic maritime centers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Somalia. The term as a geopolitical concept was first used in an internal United States Department of Defense report titled "Energy Futures in Asia". The term has never been used by official Chinese government sources, but is often used in the Indian media.

The emergence of the String of Pearls is indicative of China’s growing geopolitical influence through concerted efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, expand and modernize military forces, and foster stronger diplomatic relationships with trading partners. The Chinese government insists that China’s burgeoning naval strategy is entirely peaceful in nature and designed solely for the protection of regional trade interests. An analysis by The Economist also found the Chinese moves to be commercial in nature.

China's strategic interest in the Indian Ocean

China's overwhelming strategic intesest in the Indian Ocean is to protect its sea lines of communication (SLOCs), especially the transport of energy to China through the Malacca Strait. Beijing is concerned that China's inability to protect its SLOCs could be used as a bargaining chip against it in the context of a wider dispute. China has so far implicitly accepted the role of the United States in the Indian Ocean - it has no choice but to do so - but it takes quite a different view of India.

China is trying to mitigate its vulnerabilities in several ways :-

First, it is developing capabilities to project naval and air power into the Indian Ocean to protect its SLOCs - although these capabilities will be extremely limited for many years to come.

Second, it is attempting to reduce its vulnerabilities through diversifying its energy transport options by developing pipelines and other transport links to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar and, potentially, Pakistan.

Third, it is developing considerable economic and political influence with some Indian Ocean states.

China's strategic vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean as a legitimate cause for concern by Beijing; rather, many perceive China's regional relationships as being directed against India: either as a plan of maritime "encirclement" or to keep India strategically off-balance in the region, just as China's relationship with Pakistan has long kept India off-balance in South Asia. While the Indian Navy's immediate strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean involve countering Pakistan and enforcing control over India's exclusive economic zone, the potential for China to project naval power into the Indian Ocean has become its principal long-term source of concern.

India has responded to China's perceived presence in the Indian Ocean by trying to pre-empt China's relationships in the region and by developing its own military capabilities near the maritime choke points, particularly the Malacca Strait. India has also tried to exert pressure on China to keep off its "patch" through reminders that it might develop its own presence in the South China Sea.

Security issue in the Indian Ocean

A security dilemma may now exist between India and China in the Indian Ocean as "defensive" moves taken by each are seen as reducing the other's security. But despite talk of "encirclement" among some Indian commentators, few have credibly argued that a Chinese maritime presence in the Indian Ocean presents any realistic military threat to India. On the contrary, the Indian Ocean is the one area in which India holds a clear military advantage over China. As the former Indian Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Mehta, commented, "The weak area for China today is the Indian Navy. We sit in the Indian Ocean and that is a concern for China and they are not happy as it is not so easy for them to come inside."

Because India does not have the economic capacity to match China's overall naval capabilities, it will need to place greater reliance on geography. In strategic jargon, the Indian Ocean represents "exterior lines" for China and "interior lines" for India. That is, India has a natural advantage in the Indian Ocean, including short lines of communication to its own bases and resources, and China has corresponding disadvantages.

China's strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean creates a dynamic of its own. In the event of a conflict between the two in say the Himalayas, India might be tempted to escalate from the land dimension, where it might suffer reverses, to the maritime dimension, where it enjoys substantial advantages, and employ those advantages to restrict China's vital Indian Ocean trade.

From this perspective, any mitigation of China's relative vulnerability in the Indian Ocean could have a significant effect on the balance of power between India and China. But the Indian reaction to any Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is not just about maintaining a bargaining chip - it is much more visceral than that. There is a sense that China is seeking to deny India its legitimate sphere in the Indian Ocean, which some see as a building block for India's destined status as a great power. China's refusal to acknowledge an Indian special role in the Indian Ocean is seen as part of an incomprehensible refusal by Beijing to acknowledge India's destiny.

An understanding between China and India not to develop a permanent presence on each other's 'patch' may be helpful in reducing tensions. However, given the broader context of Sino-Indian strategic rivalry, it seems unlikely that China would be prepared to rely on India for its maritime security needs in the Indian Ocean in the absence of a broader strategic understanding between the two.

Indian Responses

In 2007, the Indian Navy published the “Indian Maritime Doctrine”, a document outlining prospective Indian naval strategies. It describes ambitions for an active Indian naval presence from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca. Furthermore, the doctrine makes explicit mention of the need to police international shipping lanes and control choke points of Indian Ocean trade in particular.

In 2007, India opened its second overseas military listening post in northern Madagascar, with the aim of better overseeing shipping movements through the Mozambique Channel. The Indian government has, with the same intentions, hosted negotiations with Mauritania regarding the construction of an airstrip for Indian surveillance aircraft, as well as organized the construction of radar stations in the Maldives.

In 2011, the Indian government further announced that the government-financed deep-water port in Sittwe, Burma is to be functional by June 2013, with an additional highway connecting the port to India to be completed by 2014. The construction of the Sittwe port is often cited as evidence of a concerted strategy on the part of India to counterbalance growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.

Like China, India is heavily dependent on foreign oil producers for its energy needs. About 89% of India’s oil arrives by ship, and the burning of oil provides for approximately 33% of India’s energy needs. The protection of the major sea lines of communication is therefore recognized as an economic imperative. In this regard, India has historically focused heavily on anti-piracy and counter-terrorism efforts across the Indian Ocean. Most notable among these is Operation Island Watch, the 2010 effort to patrol India’s western seaboard against Somali pirates.

A number of these counter-terrorism and anti-piracy efforts have been conducted in coordination with American forces, though Indian officials have traditionally restricted joint military exercises to common interest initiatives, often those under UN sanction. Nevertheless, renewed US interest in countering the threat of Islamic terrorism in South Asia has pushed India and the United States towards more substantive military cooperation. For US military officials and strategists, this growing bilateral relationship is widely seen as an opportunity to counterbalance threats of Chinese regional hegemony. Efforts for bilateral cooperation against rising Chinese power are bolstered by popular fears that China’s expanded presence in the Indian Ocean threatens India’s economic and military security.

With inputs from The Hindu, Reuters and India Today

Question :

  1. What do you understand by 'The String of Pearls'? How does it impact India? Briefly outline the steps taken by India to counter this. (200 words)

  2. Discuss the Chinese intesest in Indian ocean and Indian responses in context of 'The String of Pearls' policy. (200 words)

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