China's String of Pearls Strategy for 21st Century

Thailand’s Kra Isthmus

The Kra Isthmus and China’s String of Pearls strategy for 21st Century and beyond.
A geopolitical perspective……..

The Kra Isthmus is a narrow land bridge that connects Malaysia to Mainland Asia or the Devil’s Neck as it is sometimes referred to. There are two countries sharing this piece of land, with Thailand on the West and Myanmar on the East . This is the part that separates the Indian Ocean on the West and South China Sea on the East. So what’s so special about this piece of real estate?  The narrowest part of the Kra Isthmus is 44 km and the height is 75m above sea level.

Currently if ships from the Middle East were to go to China it had to pass through the Straits of Malacca. To navigate through the Malay Peninsula it will add an additional 1000km to the journey. Since the days of King Narai in 1677, there was this idea to cut a canal through the Kra Isthmus so that navigating around Asia will be much faster. Unfortunately the technology at that time does not permit due to the complexity of the task. The idea resurfaced a few times again in the 20th century. The British also tried a few times to restart the project but to no avail because it will kill Singapore’s domination in the port business.

The Japanese in 1985 tried to build the canal by bombing the area using some nuclear device also failed to materialized. Then in 2005 the Chinese are reportedly plan to underwrite the project worth between $20 – $25 billion with the construction plan lasting over 10 years and employing 30,000 people also failed to materialize . One of the reasons is the political pressure from the governments of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

If this project were to finish it will directly compete with all the seaports along the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. This will also mean ships can now sail through the region from India to China without passing through the Straits of Malacca. The problem with the Straits of Malacca is at certain point it is very narrow (1.5 nautical miles at  Phillips Channel near Singapore) and also very shallow (25 meters) and is considered a chokepoint. Another reason is the Straits are infested with pirates and terrorists.

Recently there are talks that the Kra Isthmus project is on again with the participation of Singapore. Singapore at this juncture did not object on the grounds not only it is included but also two of its Casinos are raking in millions a month. With this kind of cash flow it will be able to weather the drop in business of its Port. Its port business is expected to drop by at least 50-60%. Unsurprisingly they have been a strong opposition from Malaysia because the Kra Isthmus is going to be another Pearl (I will discuss what is a pearl later). The Chinese also proposing that it may be equipped with an airstrip and a naval base. Obviously Malaysia will not be thrilled with the idea of a Chinese Carrier operating right next to our country. Anyway it is reported that Chinese Fishing Trawlers had been openly mapping the ocean seabed along the sea lane of the String of Pearls. This is to prepare it for future submarine operations presumably when its ‘Blue Water Navy’ readies in 2015.  If the project were to start how will it affect Malaysia? Needless to say merchant and container ships will be using the new sea lane, which not only shorten the journey by more than 1000km and also much more secured than the pirate infested Straits of Malacca.

China’s SLOCs

China’s largest strategic concern – regime survival and domestic stability – directly links to its economy. To sustain its economic growth China has to be depending increasingly on its external supply of energy, raw materials and food. So the development of Sea Line of Communication or (SLOCs) is vitally important as more than 80% of China’s trade go through the sea. The majority of the energy comes from the country’s coal about 65 %, 30% by oil and remaining by gas, nuclear and hydroelectric power.

China used to be the East Asia largest oil exporter but in 1993 it became a net importer and by 2004 it overtook Japan to become the world’s second largest importer. By 2020 an estimated 60% of the country’s oil has to be imported compared to 8% in 1995. Also to be noted is that over 80% of China’s oil import comes from the Middle East and Africa. The chokepoint of Straits of Malacca is considered too risky for China because if there will be a collision near its narrowest point in Singapore it will disrupt the traffic flow by up to 2 weeks to china. China’s oil reserve can only last from 7-10 days. So if there is a disruption of deliveries then china’s economy will be in a total standstill. So China knows the importance of protecting its SLOCs so that oil supply from the Middle East remains uninterrupted.

Picture courtesy of FAS (Federation Of American Scientist)
Shows the Hainan Island Naval base with Jin Class SSBN and Cave Entrance
Click to enlarge

China’s String of Pearls Strategy

This gives rise to the String of Pearls strategy. Its like pearls tied to a string and each pearl represents a country normally a port where china can get access to it and the string represents the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). The String of Pearls will provide china with forward presence and military bases along the SLOCs from china to the Persian gulf in the Middle East. A pearl normally comes with facilities like airstrips and naval bases. The first pearl is the Hainan Island in South China. The Chinese have already upgraded its naval base and military facilities over there. This massive underground submarine and warship base is built because of its strategic location in the South China Sea. The entrance is so huge that it can allow the fleet of 50 plus conventi onal and nuclear submarines to go in and out without Western spy satellites detecting. There are also tunnel entrances with the height of 60ft and lead to caverns that can hide up to 20 nuclear attack submarines. Two 950m piers built around it can support 2 carrier battle groups. The second pearl is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka despite much objection from India.. However the project is already under way and china underwrite US1.2billion for the facility. China investment in this area will increase significantly as it has some interest in oil drilling in Northeast Sri Lanka. Hambantota port will also include aviation fuel storage facility, LNG refinery and a bunkering facility to refuel ships.

The third is the Chittagong port in Bangladesh. Fourth is the Woody island located 300 miles east of paracel archipelago. An airstrip has been upgraded for this purpose. And so does Port of Sittwe in Myanmar,  Marao in the Maldives and Port of Gwadar in Pakistan. Gwadar is chosen instead of Karachi is because Karachi is too near India and prone to blockages if confrontation arises as seen in the recent conflict of Kargil in 1999. Gwadar is a small fishing village and its 450 kms west of Karachi has been identified to be the next port. The Gwadar port comes with a naval base .Gwadar is chosen because of its strategic value in the 240 km distance from the Straits of Hormuz. Work has started and the first 3 of the 9 berth has already completed in 2005.

China’s Grand Strategy

In its Grand Strategy that encompass ‘Peaceful Development’, China has identified 3 stages in development spanning 50 years. This involves both the economic and military. In the first stage of development from 2000-2010 China hopes to double its GDP and Upgrade its Navy from ‘Green Water’ to ‘Blue Water’ and operate within the First  Island Chain that stretch from Japan to Philippines , has been achieved . The second stage from 2010-2020  with total GDP to be double and the development of the ‘Aircraft Carrier’  fleet of up to six carriers groups, to operate beyond the First Island Chain to reach the Second Island Chain which  stretch from Guam to Indonesia and Australia are on target. And finally, from 2020-2050 to catapult the nation to the middle rung of the Advanced Nations and with its Navy upgraded to a truly ‘World class Blue Water’ which can project power forward in all Oceans of the World. With a doctrine change from a inward looking to a outlook one, China’s Foreign policy has to be a more outward looking with global influence.

China’s Blue Water Navy

Last year the Chinese government with Hu Jintao declaring to build a ‘Blue Water Navy’ at all cost because he said ‘China is the only Superpower without an aircraft carrier’. From the north to south of China , Chinese shipyards are running round the clock operations.  Naval Intelligence saying that ‘China currently is building 2 aircraft carriers in its new Changxing Dao Shipyard in Shanghai ‘.  According to US Congressional Research, ‘By 2010 Chinese submarine force will be nearly double the size of the U.S, and the entire Chinese naval fleet is going to surpass the size of the U.S fleet by 2015’  

India complained to the US that China’s String of Pearls strategy is more of a strategic than commercial and the String of Pearls is encircling it from north to south. And also it feel very uneasy because a few of the pearls are India‘s old foe like Pakistan and Sri Lanka. So these represents China’s rising geopolitical influence through ports and airstrips and also building diplomatic relations from Hainan Island to Persian Gulf. This also acts as a way to cut off US influence in this part of the world and with India as its ally.

Checkbook Diplomacy

Well this is only a subset of the much larger plan china has on its mind. The second String of Pearls is beginning to take shape in the Pacific Ocean. China already had a strong presence in the Pacific Islands ever since there is a power vacuum left by the  French and Americans . China’s CHECKBOOK diplomacy really did a marvelous job over there. China help most of these pacific island nations to pay off their debts with no strings attached. Unlike Western aids it comes with a whole list of conditions especially human rights, transparency, opening up of market and etc.  

That is only the first step in China’s foray into the Pacific? The question is why china wants to be in this ‘no mans land’ without much natural resources and lowly populated area? The following are the reasons:

  1. One China policy
  2. Set up the second pearl of strings to counter us forces from Guam & Hawaii in case of future confrontation
  3. Strategic positioning of the Pacific

Taiwan has been lobbying the Pacific Nations to recognize it as a country and for a vote in the UN. It was doing this quite successfully for a while with nations like Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu , Marshall Islands, and the Solomon Islands  recognizing it. In return Taiwan will provide aid to them. So China come into the scene and counter offer them and eventually of the 24 nations only 6 left that is still loyal to Taiwan. China not only provides aids to them but also build infrastructure like roads, schools and government buildings for them. China already import significant amount of timber and fishes from Papua new Guinea and Solomon islands. China also has an interest in Papua New Guinea’s vast energy and mineral resources. China has already own a significant amount of interest in Ramu Nickel and Cobalt mine in Papua New Guinea. In 2006 the PNG government signs an agreement with China Exploration and Engineering to develop
its minerals of gold, copper, magnesium and etc. It is reported that an estimated of more then 1000 GLCs doing more than $4 billion in business there last year. The South Pacific also provide a market for Chinese goods.

Another reason is the setting up of the String of Pearls in the pacific so that in case of any confrontation, US forces are checked and not so easily deployable from Guam and Hawaii bases. A retired Director of stratfor ( warned  that ‘if the Chinese decided to put some missiles into the atoll, then we are in a lot of pain’.

The third and the most important is the strategic location of the pacific islands. The pacific islands lies between the equator and International Date Line makes it an ideal location for satellite tracking. Kiribati is the only country falls into this category and China in 1997 built a satellite tracking station on the Tarawa atoll. Kiribati and neighboring countries are important sites for major confrontation of land, air and sea battles during WW2 between Japan and America for the control of the pacific or better known as the ‘Battle of Midway’. The Tarawa station is also important as it can be used to launch and track rockets (either nuclear warheads or satellites) and also for monitoring US Navy and military installations in the Pacific. Especially in Kwajalein base, the US missile launching and testing installation in Marshall Islands . This station also played a big role in China’s first-manned space mission. However after suffered some bad diplomatic relations the installation had to be removed.

The third String of Pearls will be Africa since more than 20% of china’s oil imports come from that region. Swakopmund in Namibia currently accommodate China’s third overseas satellite and space telemetry tracking station after the closure of the Tarawa base,  is likely be the first pearl. Next comes  the African Nations on the east coast of Africa. As you know the Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka has bunkering facilities for ship refuel and supplies provide a perfect docking point for Chinese Ship on the way to Africa.

China’s Regional Influence

China’s growing interest and influence along the String of Pearls could impact future

US  China relations as well as China’s neighbor and ‘pearls’ along the SLOCs. Unfortunately the navies of Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia don’t possess a fleet to counter China’s Navy, only Vietnam had the capability with its Kilo class attack submarines be able to deter the Chinese. Should China remain cohesion and power sharing with the US in the region then it will not trip the balance of power, should China pursue its goal for regional hegemony for forward power projection then it will put itself on a collision course with the US and there will be future confrontations. If China pursues regional hegemony then one day it will assert hegemony on all those disputed islands like Senkaku and Spratleys.   

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