Wednesday, October 17, 2007

China’s String of Pearls Policy: A Perspective

The String of Pearls: The “String of Pearls” is not merely a naval or military strategy. Neither is it just a regional strategy. It is a manifestation of China’s ambition to attain great power status and secure a self-determined, peaceful, and prosperous future.

An examination and analysis of Chinese policy towards the South Asian region in general and India in particular shows that China has been making in-roads into India's neighbourhood by forging ties with countries in the sub-continent and South East Asia.

According to Lt.Col. Christopher J. Pehrson[1] 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.

There is a view that this geopolitical strategy has evolved because of increasing Chinese dependence on energy resources from Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and the Americas and the need for securing the energy supply routes and its maritime trade.

Each “pearl” in the “String of Pearls” is a nexus of Chinese geopolitical influence or military presence. For instance, Hainan Island with recently upgraded military facilities is a “pearl.” An upgraded airstrip on Woody Island, located in the Paracel archipelago 300 nautical miles east of Vietnam, is a “pearl.”

China and Pakistan signed an agreement of US$ 22.26 million for additional dredging of the Gwadar Deep Sea Port Project on March 24. The development of the port is regarded as a shining example of Pakistan-China cooperation and the port is expected to be ready for operation by 2007.[2]

Beijing has already established electronic eavesdropping posts at Gwadar. The posts monitor vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea.

China has deepened ties with the Bangladesh government and built a container port facility at Chittagong. In that country, China has sought extensive naval and commercial access.

China has developed close ties with the military regime of Myanmar and has turned the country adjacent to the Malacca Straits, through which 80 percent of China’s total crude oil imports pass, into Beijing’s satellite.

In November 2003, China and Cambodia signed a military agreement on providing training and equipment. Cambodia has helped China construct a railway from southern China to the sea.

China may have economic interests which requires to be safe guarded. However, what is disturbing is the listening post in Coco Island (taken on lease from Myanmar in 1994). Coco Island and the northern-most tip of the Andamans are separated by just 18 kilometers of sea. Officials say that Coco is visible from the Andamans. The Coco Islands are thus an ideal location for monitoring Indian naval and missile launch facilities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the south and movements of the Indian Navy and other navies throughout the eastern Indian Ocean. Construction of the Great Coco Island station began in late 1992 with the emplacement of a 45-50m antenna tower, radar sites and other electronic facilities forming a comprehensive SIGINT collection facility. With China controlling the Myanmar ports of Akyab, Cheduba and Bassein, India's approaches to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could be threatened.China has another listening post at Hainji Island.

China has been working aggressively towards building a blue water navy including acquiring aircraft carriers and long-range nuclear submarines. China's acquisition of Varyag, the ex-Soviet vessel, ten new destroyers, mostly from Russia and two Sovremennyy-class destroyers (now renamed the Hangzhou and Fuzhou, respectively) equipped with 200-km-range supersonic SS-N-22 Moskit Anti Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) are part of the modernization programme undertaken to build a blue water navy.

The modernization of the PLA is a tangible manifestation of China’s growing national power. According to the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, of the major and emerging great powers, China is considered to have the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could, over time, offset traditional U.S. military advantages. Regardless of China’s intent today, powerful and modernized armed forces provide China with military capabilities that the United States must consider. With near-term focus on Taiwan, PLA modernization efforts appear to be aimed specifically at combating U.S. maritime forces that might be called to defend Taiwan and at denying the United States access to regional military bases in locations such as Japan and South Korea. Many of China’s new weapon systems are applicable to a range of operations beyond the Taiwan Strait. The expanding capability of China’s military power threatens not only Taiwan—and therefore the United States—but also challenges U.S. friends and allies throughout the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Unchecked or disproportionate, China’s military modernization could lead to a major reordering of the balance of power throughout the Pacific. China began modernizing its armed forces and procuring sophisticated weapons after observing the overwhelming success and technological prowess of the U.S.-led coalition during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. This was signaled by the PLAAF’s purchase of 24 Su-27 advanced all-weather fighters from Russia in 1992, China’s first venture into fielding a first-rate air force. In 1993, China began the acquisition of advanced surface-to-air missiles, towed-array anti-submarine sonar, multiple-target torpedo control systems, nuclear submarine propulsion systems, and technology to improve the range of its undersea launched cruise missiles. The Su-27s and these other military systems procured from Russia enhanced China’s power projection capability and heightened the threat to Taiwan. In 1999, China signed a contract with Russia for 40 Su-30 ground attack aircraft and a contract for approximately 40 more was signed in 2001.

In the 1990s, the PLAN expressed interest in acquiring aircraft carriers, and more recently military leadership has stated China’s intent to build aircraft carriers, true instruments of power projection. Rhetorical statements aside, there is no evidence of China’s furthering this ambition, either because of Chinese restraint and strategic forethought in accordance with the country’s overall “peaceful development’ strategy, or because the PLAN is not robust or mature enough to put a carrier to sea without incurring substantial risk. Deploying an aircraft carrier would not occur overnight, and the PLAN is certainly many years away from actually launching one. Since the inception of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 1949, submarines have constituted an important component of its fleet. The importance of the submarines increased, when in the 70s, China moved from a coastal-defence strategy to a blue-water strategy. In 1994, China began modernizing its submarine fleet with the purchase of four Russian Kilo-class attack submarines, followed by a subsequent agreement to purchase eight more in 2002. On 18th September 2007, the People’s Daily published photographs of China’s new class of nuclear powered submarine belonging to Shang Class (Type 093). According to naval experts, China started working on this class of submarines sometime in the 80s to replace the older Han-class (Type 091), which were considered to be very noisy. However, the research did not make any significant progress till the St. Petersburg-based Rubin Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering were engaged to render assistance in the development. The new submarine was launched by the end of 2002 and commissioned in 2006. This new platform has noise reduction measures, underwater sensors and sophisticated bow-and flank-mounted sonar arrays. China is also reported to be working on the Jin-class (Type 094) submarines. With this new Jin-class submarine, the Chinese navy would be in a position to cover the Indian Ocean. These recent strides made by the PLAN will have to be seen in the context of the “string of pearls” surrounding India.
[1] String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power Across the Asian Littoral
[2] Daily Times, March 25, 2006