The String Of Pearls Strategy History Essay

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1st Jan 1970 History Reference this

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In 2001 China began pursuing its so-called “String of Pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean via the commercial route, with the construction of the Gwadar port. Subsequently, China won contracts to build ports at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, in the second biggest Bangladesh city Chittagong and in Kyaukpyu on the coast of Burma in the Arabian Sea. This research focuses on the island of Sri Lanka, explaining its historical relations, together with economical and commercial ties with China.


The “String of Pearls” refers to the Chinese sea lines of communication which extends for over from the coast of mainland China to the Port of Sudan.

The term was first used in 2004 in a classified internal report to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld titled “Energy Futures in Asia” which was produced by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. The report which was leaked to the public by the Washington Times, stated that China is adopting a “string of pearls” strategy of bases and diplomatic ties stretching from the Middle East to southern China.

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“China is building strategic relationships along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea in ways that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China’s energy interest, but also to serve broad security objectives” [1] .

The “String of Pearls” is also described by Lieutenant Colonel Christopher J. Pehrson in his study String Of Pearls: Meeting The Challenge Of China’s Rising Power Across The Asian Littoral

“the manifestation of the growing Chinese 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 and the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf”. [2] 

As stated by Ms Cristina Lin who is an energy security consultant and former director for China affairs in policy planning at the U.S. Department of Defense in her research for the Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy of Berlin we have to consider that the “dragon” will become a great sea power in the 21st century, and that it may challenge the predominance of the United States in the Indian Ocean, and could “threaten” India in their very own Bay of Bengal. Ms Lin is also former visiting fellow at The Washington Institute, with expertise in energy security, Chinese military doctrine, relations between China and the Middle East, and other issues.

These three issues are key if not essential for an area to be considered part of the string of pearls [3] :

Increase in diplomatic relations This is to ensure mutually beneficial trade and export agreements through establishing cordial relations between the nations

Access to airfields and ports This may be accomplished by building new facilities or in some cases it can involve heavily subsiding construction of new ports and airfields

Modernizing military force A modern military can help to maintain/hold individual pearls. It may also be trained for various actions and exercises.

“These ‘pearls’ are interwoven and sinewed into a strong chain or ‘string’ by virtue of their strategic positioning and placement to each other” [4] 

Professor Shee Poon Kim, in his 2011 study at the Department of Global Politics and Economics of Tamkang University, Taiwan describes two roads which need to be pursued to conquer a pearl: the “Dollar Diplomacy and Infrastructure Buildup” and the “Establishment of Common Ground by Fostering a win- win Relationship”.

The “Dollar Diplomacy” is pursued after establishing diplomatic ties with the host country via trade offers or visits by representatives from State-run enterprises or senior officials. Subsequently a generous dose of dollars are offered to the host by giving grants, economic aid, loans and even technical expertise [5] . Professor Kim also believes that

“By opening its vast pocketbook and digging deep, China indirectly submits the host country to a subliminal form of economic expansion” [6] 

He ads that its thanks the PRC’s use of their extensive foreign reserve holdings [7] , that they able to create a sort of addiction for the host country to the relatively cheap funds: grants, loans and investments, which most countries find very hard to stop receiving.

Granted that most of these host countries are often poor or underdeveloped, the Chinese proposals are more than delectable and very appreciated. A good example are unsettled and problematic and war torn apart countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh which are often left alone by the international community. The mainly subsidized infrastructure involves the upgrade and the constitution of roads, railways, highways, ports and airports, which the latter two in some cases may be of military nature. [8] 

The second road which needs to be pursued is the “Establishment of Common Ground: Fostering a win-win Relationship”. By recognizing that its interests are best served by merging the host countries’ stakes with its own, Beijing also strives to seek a con­fluence of interest with the host States’ stakeholders in the construction of its infra­structure. A good example is the port of Gwadar, in Pakistan [9] .


There has been a lot of speculation, particularly in the media about the String of Pearls strategy. If at first it was considered as mainly as a possible military threat, especially from the United States [10] , today it is manly thought as an economical and commercial plan [11] .

As expressed by India’s Major General (Retd) Dhruv Katoch China’s concept, development and expansion of these “pearls” has been non confrontational, with no evidence as yet of imperial or neocolonial ambition [12] . The “String of Pearls” may not, be a strategy directly guided by China’s central government, but it may be a “convenient label applied by some in the United States to describe an element of China’s foreign policy” [13] .

China’s ongoing rapid development, from increased global influence to its expanding economy and demand for energy, presents massive challenges to China’s leaders as they manage the massive structural, technological, and social changes. The governing elites of China have three overarching concerns: regime survival, territorial integrity, and domestic stability [14] .

These strategic concerns-are inexorably linked to the economy. China’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability is the economy, and therefore must be at the center of the Chinese policy and strategies. To sustain this economic growth, Beijing will need to rely increasingly upon external sources of energy and raw materials.

The majority of China’s energy needs, about 70 percent, is currently met by coal of which China is the world’s largest producer and consumer [15] . The remaining thirty percent is completed by twenty-five percent of oil, three percent of natural gas, and the remaining two percent by other energy sources, including nuclear and hydroelectric power. [16] Although coal will remain the main source used, oil consumption is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 5.8 percent for the next 10 years. [17] On China’s ability to secure reliable energy sources is inextricably linked to its economic success. [18] According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report dated July 2010, China has now taken over the U.S. as the world’s number one consumer of oil [19] . Securing access to energy sources means se­curing ports and pipelines, the foundation that props up China’s energy transport hub.

Therefore Sea Lines Of Communications (SLOCs) becomes fundamental because most of China’s foreign trade is conducted by sea, especially considering that in the past decades China has had little success in developing reliable oil or gas pipelines from Russia or Central Asia. Since energy provides the foundation of the economy, China’s economic policy depends on the success of its energy policy. [20] Secure access to foreign oil resources will be necessary both for continued economic growth and, because growth is the cornerstone of China’s domestic stability, for the survival of the Chinese Communist regime. [21] 

“Securing SLOCs for energy and raw materials is at the base of China’s energy policy and is the main motivation behind the String of Pearls.” [22] 

China needs energy suppliers and seeks them throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and the Americas [23] . Although China wants to obtain secure supply lines and reduce dependence only a few energy suppliers, sea transport from the Middle East and Africa will remain the primary mode of petroleum import for the foreseeable future [24] . China has demonstrated a long-term effort and commitment to these supply sources as proved by relationships with Middle Eastern and African oil exporters. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review commission [25] review of 2005 states that Saudi Arabia is China’s largest crude oil supplier, and that Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, is a 25 percent investor in China’s biggest refinery and petrochemical plant. With another very important supplier, Iran, China recently signed a $ 70 billion oil and natural gas deal. [26] 

So despite the furor and attention it has generated, the “string of pearls” according to Daniel Kostecka, who is a research fellow at the National Defense Intelligence College and a senior US Navy analyst

“does not represent a coordinated strategy on the part of China, and there is no substantive evidence in Chinese sources or elsewhere to support the contentions of commentators, academics, and officials who use it as a baseline for explaining Beijing’s intentions in the Indian Ocean. Reality is shaping up to be quite different” [27] 

The most recent debate in China according to Mr. Kostecka should be revolving around the acknowledgment of what are commonly referred in the U.S. military as “places,” as opposed to bases [28] . This type of strategy involves securing with friendly governments diplomatic agreements allowing access to those nations’ facilities in order to obtain essential supplies, such as fuel, food, and freshwater, for deployed forces [29] . Such agreements can also involve reciprocal guarantees of military support in such areas as training, equipment, and education.


fig.1 – Map of the possible String of Pearls fig. 2 SLOC (sea lines of communications)

The pearls sea lines extends from Mainland China through the South China sea, the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean and on to the littorals of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf as well as having other strategic maritime centers in Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

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Strategist and scholars especially from the United States of America and from India have been using the term “String of Pearls” to describe those areas where China is establishing a base. The areas have been given the name “pearl”.

“Each pearl in this string is a nexus of Chinese geopolitical influence or military presence which stretches from Hainan Islad to Gwadar” [30] . The Hainan Island, with its recently upgraded military facilities, is a “pearl”, an upgraded airstrip on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago, a container shipping facility in Chittagong, Bangladesh, the construction of a deep water port in Sittwe, Myanmar, a port in Hambantota, the construction of a navy Port and airfield construction projects, diplomatic ties, and force modernization form the essence of China’s “String of Pearls.” [31] 

China is building strategic relationships and developing a capability to establish a forward presence along the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that connect China to the Middle East. [32] 

Five to fifteen possible “pearls” have been discussed and listed. The closest distance wisefrom China’s mainland, which has often referred to as the first pearl in the chain is the Hainan Island, located in the South China Sea. In 2008, the United Kingdom-based Daily Telegraph newspaper claimed that China had built a secret underground nuclear submarine base at Yulin Naval Base on the southern tip of Hainan.

Because Hainan island is China’s sovereign territory, there has been no denial that Beijing maintains a military base there. Whether or not the base is dedicated more to securing China’s SLOC or asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea is less clear.

Another pearl is the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, which used to be a small fishing village, and is located on the shores of the Arabian Sea at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in the western province Balochistan province of Pakistan [33] 533 kilometers from Karachi and 120 km east of Iran, and 380 km northeast of Oman [34] . The first idea of a port construction was in 1954, but lacked the means to develop. Currently the port at Karachi handles 90 percent of Pakistan’s sea-born trade, and because of its proximity to India it is extremely vulnerable to blockade [35] .

In August 2005, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Pakistan to commemorate completion of the first phase of the Gwadar project and the opening of the first 3 of 12 multi-ship berths. The latest visit to date of the China’s Prime Minister in Pakistan was in December 2010 when he met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and signed according to the Pakistani information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, 13 agreements. And thanks to these agreements Bilateral trade between the two countries is expected to hit $60 billion in 2010, making China Pakistan’s largest trading partner. [36] The Pakistani premier also said his country would also request Chinese assistance in making the new deep-sea port of Gwadar operational [37] .

The port is located between three important regions: the populated area of Pakistan, the Central Asian Region and the oil rich Middle East. For China the strategic value of Gwadar is it’s 240 mile distance from the Strait of Hormuz [38] which is Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, and is the only sea passage to the open ocean. Its contiguity to the Strait of Hormuz means that the port serves as a strategic transit point for China’s Iranian and Afri­can crude oil imports

The port brings several advantages for China: the main one being that it serves as an energy transport, it will be the pipeline terminal hub which will carry oil from Gwadar to its western region of Xinjian by an oil pipe. Admiral (Retd) Sureesh Mehta said delivering the Narayanaswamy Memorial lecture in Chennai in 2008.

“It has serious strategic implications for India being only 180 Nm from the exits of Hormuz, would enable Pakistan to take control over the world energy jugular and interdiction of Indian tankers. [39] “

The use of the port as a military base is however very unlikely and if it were to seek a facility in Pakistan to support its forces, it would be more feasible that China would sail send its warships to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest port and primary naval- military base as expressed by Kostecka. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has visited Karachi more often than any other port [40] . However in his 2012 IPCS assessment on the Sino/Indian Maj. Gen. Dhruv Katochi underlines how while China has over the past few years invested nearly $ 200 million USD into the Gwadar Port Project, and will invest much more for the completion of its second phase, he insist on saying that there are voices being raised in China expressing concern over Beijing’s support to Pakistan. “The Gwadar Port Project does not make much sense for China”, says Professor Zha Daojiong, of the Peking University’s School of International Studies, one of China’s premier energy expert. According to Dr Yang Jiemian, president of the Shanghai Institutes for International studies, the entire China-Pakistan policy is under active review. The strategic angle to the Pakistan-China relationship will however remain and China’s foreign policy will continue to use Pakistan as a cap India’s geostrategic ambitions [41] .

China’s interest in investing in the container port of Chittagong in Bangladesh was reported first in Energy Futures in Asia report with the claim that China could be seeking more extensive naval and commercial access to Bangladesh although the report admits that China’s interest in Chittagong for military purposes could not be confirmed [42] . Currently the Port of Chittagong, which is located by the estuary of Karnaphuli River near the city of Chittagong is the country’s principal seaport, currently handling over 90% of its import-export trade [43] which shows that its importance to Bangladesh’s economy is paramount. The necessitous government of Dhaka does not have the money needed to upgrade and expand the port and Beijing investment in the Port of Chittagong includes the creation of new road and rail links from Chittagong through Burma to Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province [44] .

According to the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, China has agreed to help finance an $8.7 billion expansion of Chittagong development plan to raise bulk cargo handling capacity over 100 million tons and containers handling of three million 20 feet equivalent unit containers annually by 2055. [45] Yet, as expressed by Kostecka Bangladesh’s leaders have an only an expansive vision for the port that is commercial, not military.

Despite the fact that for the international community Burma is considered an undesirable State because since 1962 year in which the country has been under military control [46] , it has not deterred China to pursue its energy interests in that region. Myanmar has the largest natural gas reserves in South East Asia with a whopping 12.1 billion cu m is number thirty nine in the world for natural gas production [47] . The Sittwe port, which is situated approximately 265 kilometers south of Chittagong is small facility considered another of China’s “pearl”. However, it wasn’t China, but India that signed to a contract with Burma in April 2009 for the development of the so-called Kaladan Transport Project, which includes plans for the development of the Sittwe portthat have been won by the Indian company Essar Projects who is currently building a coastal port at Sittwe and a river jetty at Paletwa [48] .

So China is using the current port at Sittwe but its main focus is in the Kyaukphyu port in Rakine State which would allow Beijing to construct gas on oil pipes from the Burma, Middle East and Africa to its land-locked southern and western hinterlands through the Bay of Bengal therefore avoiding the potential strategic choke point of the Malacca Strait. The oil pipeline will connect from Kyaukphyu port to the Chinese city of Kunming in southern Yunnan province while the gas pipeline will be extended to China’s Guizhou and Guangxi provinces for a total of over 2806 kilometers [49] . The supposed construction cost of the entire project is over $6.5 billion which will be financed largely by China [50] includes other than the two pipelines the development of an offshore gas field worth by its self $3 billion.

In 2008 report entitled “Burma’s Coco Islands: Rumours and Realities in the Indian Ocean” written by Andrew Selth for The Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC) of the City University of Hong Kong argued that the lack of verifiable data regarding China’s involvement in the Coco Islands had complicated the issue. He stated that it was only the thought of Chinese Military base on the Coco Islands was a “myth”, created by media reporting, false information and pushed by individuals with their own agendas [51] . In his study he underlines how in 2008, there was no tangible evidence of China’s military presence in the region.

In Africa, China’s main interest have been is the state of Sudan in which it has invested over $3 billion to develop Sudan’s unexploited oil resources, including a 930-mile pipeline, a refinery, and a sea port. [52] 

Sri Lanka a brief history

In ancient times, the island of Sri Lanka was called by a variety of names: ancient Greeks and Romans called it Taprobane, while Arabs referred to it as the island of Serendipity [53] . Ceilão was the name given to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese when they arrived on the island in 1505, which was transliterated into English as Ceylon which remained the island official name until 1972, year it became “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka”. Six years later it changed again to the current “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”.

Once a port of call on ancient maritime trade routes, the island of Sri Lanka is located in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern tip of India’s Deccan Peninsula from which is separated by a narrow sea of 22 miles called Palk Strait it’s shape resembles a tear, thus its name the tear drop of India and extends for an area of 64Ë™630 square kilometers [54] .

The original inhabitants of the island nation are the Wanniyala-Aetto, also known as the Veddas [55] . During the 5th century BC Indo-Aryans from northern India established themselves in the Sinhalese Buddhist kingdoms of the central part of the island. Meanwhile the Tamil Hindus [56] were pushed down from southern India and settled in the northeastern coastal areas, establishing a kingdom in the Jaffna Peninsula [57] . Unfortunately we do not have any written proof of the date of arrival of the Tamils from India [58] . The first reliable sources of Tamils living in the northern part of the Island date as back as the second century before Christ [59] . Revisionists of both ethnic groups have discussed at length who arrived first on the island thus who’s is the “owner” of the land.

For centuries the island was home of several Sinhalese and Tamil Kingdoms: most notably the Kingdom of Tambapanni, Anuradhapura in 380 BC, the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa, the Jaffna Kingdom and the Kandy kingdom. The island has been invaded at least eight times by neighboring South Asian dynasties such as the Chola and the Pandya.

Moorish people who represent 8% of the current population have lived in the island since the first millennium, coming from India but with Arab origins which makes them Muslims and although they all speak Tamil as a mother language do not consider themselves as Tamil.

In the 16th century, the island was colonized by several European nations, at first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally by the English, becoming the first British crown colony in 1802 and was formally united under British rule with the name of Ceylon by 1815 [60] .

Currently the majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese (over 65%), most of them are of Buddhist religion and live in the western and southern provinces, while the Tamil population known as Sri Lankan or Ceylon Tamils, constitute over 20% of the country’s population and live predominantly in the North and East parts of the Island. In the 19th century, during British reign, Tamil speaking Indian laborers were brought from the Indian region of Tamil Nadu to work in the British tea and rubber plantations in the southern highlands. Known as Indian Tamils, the descendants of these Indian workers currently account 5% of Sri Lanka’s population and reside in the south-central “tea country” [61] . Another small minority is composed by the Burgers, who are mixed descended of the Portuguese and are mainly Christian and English speaking [62] .

2.2 Civil War

Ceylon gained its independence from Britain peacefully in 1948, but in the following few decades an ethnic conflict spurred between the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, and the largely Hindu Tamil minority living in the northern and eastern provinces. Following independence, elections were won by the United National Party (UNP), and one of the first acts of the Sinhalese party was the new law on citizenship which deprived all the Indian Tamils of civil and voting rights.

Eight years later there was a change in the government with the victory of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was guided by Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike. On the 5th of June 1956 the new parliament proclaimed the “Sinhala Only bill”. The act deprived Tamil and English of the status of national and official languages which had been granted during the British empire. This was very hard to accept for the Tamils and the other minorities, but not only in a symbolic way, in a more practical way every state worker, who didn’t speak Sinhala had to learn it to continue his job as underlined by Professor Alan Kronstadt, who is a specialist in South Asian Affairs at Congressional Research Service in Washington DC: “The Tamils who had attained educational and civil service predominance under the

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