China reinvents ‘string of pearls’ as Maritime Silk Road

In contrast to Deng’s “lie low, bide your time” dictum, Xi’s approach is xiong xin bo bo (full of big ambitions)

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review

For years, China has pursued a “string of pearls” strategy to create a network of infrastructure projects and staging posts stretching from its eastern coast to the Middle East along the great trade arteries in order to gain strategic clout and naval access. But more recently, China has worked to ease growing concerns in Asia and beyond over its geopolitical aims by rebranding “string of pearls” — a term coined by U.S. consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton in a 2005 report for the Pentagon — as the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative. But can a simple name change allay suspicions that China’s true goal is regional domination?

Stripped of its rhetoric, the Maritime Silk Road initiative — just like the “string of pearls” project — is designed to make China the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. And just as the “string of pearls” focused on the great trade arteries, the initiative targets key littoral states that sit astride major access routes or are located near choke points. It follows the same route from which, historically, these countries drew wealth and strength.

Coining a name to shake off a foreign-imposed term allows Beijing to market the initiative as a “win-win” trade connectivity project. For small, internationally neglected states, it opens the way for an infusion of major Chinese aid and investment. And for China, it is opening lucrative contracts for its state-run companies and aiding its strategic penetration of regional states. Chinese construction of ports, railroads, highways and pipelines helps project China’s image as a strong but benevolent power. It also permits Beijing to pull regional countries closer to its orbit through economic leverage and soft power.

More broadly, China aims to use the Maritime Silk Road project to counter U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, even though the “pivot” remains more rhetorical than real, largely because of American foreign policy’s preoccupation with the Muslim world. For China, economic development is a key drawcard card to help carve out a steadily enlarging sphere of influence in the region.

Silk_routeThe initiative bears the stamp of President Xi Jinping, who is pushing it with a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and the new China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Xi announced the Maritime Silk Road initiative during a trip to Indonesia in October 2013, just a month after he unveiled an overland “Silk Road” project to connect China with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and Europe. The new AIIB, according to Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, would finance infrastructure construction under both initiatives.

The Maritime Silk Road — to be ultimately protected by Chinese warships — is part of Xi’s focus on the seas that includes employing gunboat diplomacy to challenge Japan in the East China Sea, enlarging China’s control over some of the world’s most strategic waterways in the South China Sea, and making China an important player in the Indian Ocean region. Xi, who has articulated a more expansive role for China than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong, is using overseas infrastructure projects to extend China’s commercial and strategic interests.

Xi’s call last November for China to establish “big country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” served as a fresh reminder that he is abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “hide your brightness, bide your time.” Deng’s “hide and bide” approach was designed to allow China to focus on economic growth and political stability, while Xi’s approach is xiong xin bo bo (full of big ambitions).

Under Xi, China has moved to a proactive posture to shape its external security environment. It is pursuing a muscular approach by boosting its military buildup, asserting territorial claims against its neighbors, and using trade and investment to expand its sphere of influence to the strategic domain.

China’s efforts to disturb the territorial and maritime status quo are best illustrated by the remarkable speed with which it has been building up land mass in the South China Sea, hundreds of kilometers from its mainland. By converting tiny, largely submerged reefs into islands that can host military facilities and personnel, China has highlighted the scale of its ambition to hold sway over vital sea lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Added to this is China’s frenzied submarine-building program, with the country now boasting more diesel- and nuclear-powered vessels than the U.S., according to Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, U.S. deputy chief of naval operations for capabilities and resources. Mulloy recently told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee that China is extending the geographic areas of operation for its submarines and keeping them at sea for longer periods of deployment.

Soft and hard tactics

China’s construction of seaports, railroads and highways in littoral states contrasts with its broader military assertiveness. Such construction, however, is integral to a strategy that fuses soft and hard tactics to convince regional states that it is in their interest to join forces with China and accept it as the regional leader. In fact, the Maritime Silk Road does little more than attempt to recast the “string of pearls” strategy in meretriciously benign terms.

Paradoxically, China’s whipping up of nationalism at home goes hand-in-hand with its project to globalize and build a vast trading network along the ancient Maritime Silk Road. And even as China works quietly to alter the territorial and maritime status quo with several neighbors, it presents itself to regional states as a partner in their development.

How China blends its economic and military interests was illustrated last autumn by the separate docking of two Chinese attack submarines at the new Chinese-built container terminal at Sri Lanka’s Colombo Harbour. The $500 million container terminal is majority owned by Chinese state companies.

Beijing has been attracted by Sri Lanka’s strategic location, close to the world’s busiest sea lanes. After China completed building Sri Lanka’s southern port of Hambantota, Xi inaugurated construction of a $1.4 billion Chinese-funded project to create a city roughly the size of Monaco on reclaimed land off Colombo, the capital. The planned sprawling complex — currently embroiled in a major political and environmental controversy in Sri Lanka — is intended to become a major stop on China’s nautical “road,” for whose security Chinese warships will increasingly turn up at harbors.

Meanwhile, China’s desire for a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean — where it has already carried out three deployments — is being whetted by its control of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, near the Iranian border. Located strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, a gateway for a third of the world’s traded oil, the deep-water port epitomizes how an increasingly ambitious China, brimming with hard cash from blazing economic growth, is building new transportation, trade, energy and naval links to advance its interests.

The Gwadar Port Authority chairman recently revealed that Pakistan has granted China 40-year rights to operate the Chinese-built port. Beijing is investing another $1.62 billion in new infrastructure, including a container terminal, an international airport, and an expressway linking the harbor with the coastline.

Strategic corridors

As Xi’s April 20-21 Pakistan visit attested, China is working to connect its restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea by building a 3,000-kilometer overland transportation corridor to Gwadar through Pakistan-held Kashmir. Known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, this $46 billion project will hook up China’s maritime and overland Silk Roads. Contracts worth $28 billion were unveiled during Xi’s visit under the corridor plan.

The strategic corridor will allow Beijing to shorten the route of its oil imports from the Middle East and Africa to barely one quarter of the current 12,000km. The oil will be offloaded at Gwadar for transport by pipeline to western China. Beijing is building a similar network of highways, railroads and energy pipelines from Myanmar’s coast to southern China.

China has operationally taken over Gwadar Port to develop not just its commercial value but also its potential as a naval outpost overlooking Gulf shipping lanes. Having insisted that Gwadar’s role was purely commercial, Beijing was deeply embarrassed when Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan’s then-defense minister, disclosed in 2011 that Pakistan had asked China to begin building a naval base there. “We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,” he said.

Given China’s proclivity for strategic stealth, its work even on the commercial port at Gwadar was launched quietly. The planned naval base is now being projected as a refueling and works station, which China’s own submarines could use to extend their range in the Indian Ocean.

China has also sought to court the Maldives, a group of strategically located islands in the Indian Ocean where the first democratically elected president was forced at gunpoint to resign in 2012. Xi, during a visit last September, unveiled new Chinese-run infrastructure projects there, calling the Maldives “an important stop” on the Maritime Silk Road. China remains interested in leasing one of its 1,200 islands.

The Indian Ocean is central to Beijing’s intent to fashion a Sino-centric Asia. China’s quiet maneuvering, chipping away at India’s natural geographic advantage, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South and East China Seas.

In this light, China’s aggressive maritime strategy has emerged as the biggest challenge in the Indo-Pacific region. Just as the U.S. dominates the Western hemisphere, China wants to gain pre-eminence in Asia by widening the power gap with its most formidable neighbors — Japan, Russia and India. It believes the maritime domain holds the key to achieving its goal, thus prompting the launch of the Maritime Silk Road initiative. But success will elude Beijing if other important players in Asia establish a strategic constellation with the aim of inducing China to accept the status quo.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the 2012 Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2015.