String of Pearls – Pinch of Salt

The idea that China is an increasing military threat in South Asia colours much of US and Indian policy. But so far the evidence shows that it is commercial rather than military interests that have preoccupied China.

The dynamics between the three great powers of India, China and the US are a muddle of contradictions. From certain angles, partnerships look strong – the Indo-US nuclear deal for instance; or India and China teaming up for climate change talks. From other angles, things look decidedly rocky. The US would like India to provide the equivalent of the US-UK special relationship in South Asia, but New Delhi frequently shows itself to be far less pliable than the poodle in Europe. A report from India’s environment ministry on Himalayan glacier melt shows just how distant their respective attitudes can get.

This was part of the message from Financial Times correspondent Edward Luce (whose book In Spite of the Gods: the strange rise of modern India is about as good a guide to the 21st century subcontinent as can be hoped for) when he gave a lecture to the LSE in London last week. When New Delhi sees its interests diverging from Washington it is quick to exert its independence.

One constant, however, binds Washington to New Delhi in Mr Luce’s view, and that is a shared anxiety over China’s rise. The idea that China is an increasingly threatening presence in South Asia – one that needs countering by India with US support – has become a widely accepted discourse, so much so that it has the power to obscure realities on the ground. Much of it relies on perceptions and assumptions that are not helped by the opaque nature of Chinese government.

A key tenet of the ‘China as threat’ narrative is the String of Pearls theory. Much touted in US policy circles, this theory argues that China has developed a series  of strategic bases – in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan – projecting Chinese naval power far beyond its borders and amounting to a threatening encirclement of India.

Take a closer look at these “bases”, however, and the threat seems pretty overblown. Jane’s Intelligence Review (you can’t afford the subscription) used satellite imagery from the past three years to show that these ports would struggle to encircle larger species of fish, let alone present a serious threat to the subcontinent. Pakistan’s Gwador port has apparently seen very little construction in the past three years. There is a commercial wharf and a couple of helipads. Plans to build a multi-billion dollar oil refinery were reportedly put on the backburner earlier this year. Similarly, the imagery from Sittwe in Myanmar shows that little or no construction has been happening there and that the port could not handle commercial, let alone military, vessels. While China has shown an interest in developing Myanmar’s gas fields in the area, so has India.

In fact, according to Jane’s, the most significant construction has been at the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, meaning that it can now be used as a “small container off-loading facility, whereas in 2005 it was able to service only fishing vessels.” Hardly the stuff of brinkmanship.

Perhaps we should look elsewhere. This week, China signed a landmark deal to sell 36 of its J-10 fighter aircraft to Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, India is less than overjoyed with China’s readiness to supply its historic rival with state-of-the-art weaponry, not least since China was the major benefactor behind Pakistan’s nuclear technology. But Pakistan has plenty of uses for fighter aircraft that are not a direct threat to India. Perhaps more important, as the FT noted in the same article, is that Pakistan provides an ideal testing ground for China’s latest gizmos and a shop window for other potential buyers.

FIRST AND FOREMOST, A COMMERCIAL POWER

The one thing we know for certain about China is that it is good at doing business. So far China’s naval power projection, its military build-up and its growing defence industry show little definite motivation beyond an interest in the bottom line. The String of Pearls looks like a series of useful refuelling points and potential bases from which to protect commercial shipping through the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa. Its unprecedented dispatch of naval forces to fight piracy in 2008 could be seen as a flexing of maritime muscle, or it could be simply about protecting investments.

Even the angry words shared over the disputed region of Arunachal Pradesh in recent months can be seen as manipulative posturing rather than genuine aggression. As South Asia analyst Harsh Pant of King’s College London recently told the Guardian, the disputed region is a card that Beijing plays as a way of preoccupying India. And the Indian media is happy to oblige, breeding rumours of border incursions that are often denied by both governments. Certainly, there are provocative moves from the Chinese across the Line of Actual Control, but these soon escalate into predictions of all-out war (by 2012 according to a much-publicised essay by the editor of the Indian Defence Review this summer).

It would be a mistake to offer a blanket of benign intention to everything China does. There are plenty of perhapses and maybes in the above interpretations. For me, a more fundamental question arises from a discussion of where China is heading: Is it fair to paint China’s commercial expansion in military terms of encirclement and provocation?  There is a clear interest in Indian and American strategic communities to present China’s extension of economic influence – at which it is proving highly successful – as being underpinned by illegitimate military motives. I catch a whiff of jealousy.

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