Encircling India: China’s South Asia String of Pearls
By Tim Daiss
On February 18, news broke that China took control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port as part of what Agence France-Presse (AFP) called “its [China’s] drive to secure, energy and maritime routes that also gives it a potential Arabian Sea base.”
However, fallout from China’s Gwadar ambitions had been mounting for some time. India, a long-time antagonist of Pakistan and China, often send mixed signals.
Just a week earlier, after the Pakistani government approved the proposal for China Overseas Port Holdings Limited to purchase control of the port from Singapore’s PSA International, India’s defense minister, Ak Antony, described it as a “matter of serious concern.” However, India’s external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, suggested that India should not over react to everything Pakistan does or everything that China is involved in.
On February 8, the Times of India wrote “Islamabad is keen to see enhanced Chinese activity in Gwadar in order to involve China in its own disputes along with India along the Arabian Sea.”
The deal helps China’s geo-political ambitions since it establishes an energy and trade corridor connecting China to the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz, where a third of all global oil exports pass. It will cut thousands of kilometers off the distance which oil has to travel to reach the Middle Kingdom.
However before China can benefit from its latest victory, rail lines, connecting roads and highways have to be built first.
And make no mistake; this deal has been in China’s mind for quite some time. Under China’s 12th Five Year Plan, endorsed three years ago, Beijing vowed to accelerate the construction of railways and highways linking Gwadar port and Kashi (Kashgar) in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
While New Delhi is scrambling for solutions to what it sees as Chinese encroachment around its periphery, China and Pakistan hail the Gwadar transfer of power as a continuing development in Sino-Pakistani relations.
China’s string of pearls
Indian concern is well founded. China’s Gwadar takeover gives it yet another port in what many call the country’s “string of pearls.” Gwadar is the most western of Chinese funded ports in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and perhaps soon in Bangladesh, effectively-encircling India.
Dr. Harsh V. Pant, with the Defence Studies Department at King’s College in London, said that given China’s reluctance to rely on US naval power for unhindered access to energy, it has moved to build up its naval power at “choke points along the sea routes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.”
“India is really worried about China’s role in Gwadar and its penetration of India’s periphery,” Pant told the Energy Tribune. “There’s Gwadar, Hambantota [in Sri Lanka] and Chittagong [in Bangladesh]– all troublesome for New Delhi. India is responding in its usual haphazard manner.”
Pant, commenting on news that India intends to develop Chaahbahar port in Iran, said that it was India’s answer to the Chinese in Gwadar. However, according to a recent Times of India report, Chaahbahar remains a long-term project.
“India will have to be more proactive in China’s periphery. That’s sinking in but it’s too little too late so far,” Pant said.
Yet, it’s no secret among China watchers and geo-political pundits that China’s blue ocean navy has a long way to go.
In essence, it’s undeveloped and doesn’t have the numbers of vessels needed to support its ambitions worldwide. That takes time, planning, money, training and ships.
In a January article titled “The Top 5 Navies of the Indo-Pacific” for The Diplomat, James R. Holmes writes: “Its [China’s] foreign-policy ambitions have outrun the size and capability of the fleet. If the leadership means to uphold the interests it has carved out all along the Asian periphery, ranging from Japan to the north to the Strait of Malacca to the south, the PLA Navy still has a long way to go.”
Pant agrees, but adds “though China doesn’t yet have the resources to match India in the Indian Ocean, that will likely change.” He said that many in India believe that if the present trends continue, China will not be able to challenge India’s predominance in the Indian Ocean.
“This is understood as much by New Delhi as it is by smaller nations in the region,” Pant said. “This has allowed islands nations like Maldives, Seychelles and Sri Lanka to openly court China.”
Pant added that New Delhi understands the long-term challenge it faces from China encroachment but “there are so many short-term challenges that India tends to loose focus most of the time.”
With US-Pakistani relations at an all time low, China’s growing involvement in Pakistan and South Asia is a growing concern for Washington.
Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on February 26, Joseph Yun, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, testified on the importance of the Indian Ocean and South Asian region to the United States’ strategic re-balance of the broader Asia-Pacific region.
He called for greater US-India cooperation on regional security in Asia-Pacific and elsewhere. However, the secretary did not mention Pakistan, a key South Asian player. Albeit, India is key for US success in both the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean and a growing Sino-Pakistani alliance can be an impediment for those goals.
Yet, China still doesn’t hold all the cards.
“Pakistan-US ties have hit their nadir,” Pant said. “But there are also limits to Pakistan-China ties. Though Pakistan and China have always been close, given their antagonism towards India, China will never be able to replace the US and it doesn’t seem that it has any intention of doing that.”
“Pakistan is a risky nation and China has to very careful to not burn its fingers. So, how the Gwadar project develops will be an important test case for this partnership.”
By posting your comment, you agree to abide by our Posting rules