China’s Maritime Ambitions: a Sinister String of Pearls or a Benevolent Silk Road (or Both)?
As China looks west and invests in projects in and along the Indo-Pacific, Beijing’s intentions in the maritime commons have come to the fore. Is China seeking to advance its military ambitions and limit the mobility of U.S. forces in the region through a concerted “String of Pearls” strategy or is it pursuing a strategy of mutual benefit as the Chinese leadership has espoused in the Maritime Silk Road? Or is it an assortment of the two?
A Theory and an Initiative
In 2004, U.S. defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) coined the term “String of Pearls” in a report submitted to the Office of Net Assessment at the U.S. Department of Defense to describe China’s strategy in the waters stretching south of the Eurasian continent. While the report, “Energy Futures in Asia,” is not publicly available, those with access have consistently cited one line:
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 interests, but also to serve broad security objectives.
This description is then followed by examples, which include the disputed islands and features in the South China Sea, as well as a series of strategically significant ports—such as Gwadar in Pakistan and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar—and an ambitious canal project in Thailand that, if successful, would provide Chinese vessels an alternative to the Strait of Malacca.
The concept itself did not immediately manifest in common lexicon. A tailored search on Baidu for “String of Pearls” [珍珠链] for 2005—when U.S. media first reported on the concept—resulted in a few immediate commentaries posted to provincial party committee and municipal propaganda sites that simply summarized the report’s findings. In November of the same year, other state-connected sources rehashed the summaries and rebutted claims that China was pursuing overseas military bases in response to a November article in The Guardian that advanced the “String of Pearls” theory and applied it to developments in Gwadar. Searches for proceeding years have similarly limited results and likewise center around news on a specific “pearl.”
In 2008, however, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy (PLAN) participated in antipiracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden—its first operational mission outside waters in China’s periphery and a part of its expanded scope of responsibilities under Hu Jintao’s 2004 “New Historic Missions.” This ignited domestic debate on how to best provide logistics support for PLAN missions and operations in the far seas. Concurrently, it renewed and invigorated interest and discussion on the “String of Pearls” theory in the United States, India, and among related friends and allies. This continued as Beijing secured agreements to develop certain “pearls” and advance and expand its interests abroad.
In October 2013, a month after his announcement of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” (丝绸之路经济带) in Kazakhstan, Chinese president Xi Jinping called for the development of the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (21世纪“海上丝绸之路,”hereafter “Maritime Silk Road”) during a speech in Indonesia. Jointly, the two make up the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In particular, Xi advocated cooperation between China and ASEAN to achieve “common development” and “common prosperity,” citing a longstanding relationship in the original, ancient maritime Silk Road. The scope of the Maritime Silk Road has since been expanded to Sri Lanka, then to Kenya, and finally through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean.
One and the Same?
Media commentators both inside and outside China have discussed possible links between the “String of Pearls” theory and the Maritime Silk Road initiative. Chinese media has honed in on one piece in particular that was published for China-U.S. Focus by Zhou Bo, a fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science. Zhou writes that the “only thing justifiable in the ‘String of Pearls’ theory is that it underlines the growing importance…of the Indian Ocean for China’s ever-expanding national interests.” Interestingly, Xinhua’s Reference News (Cankao Xiaoxi) cited the article, claiming that the Maritime Silk Road could be a reaction to the “String of Pearls” [“ ‘海上丝绸之路’可能是对所谓 ‘珍珠链’理论做出的反应”], though this is not inherent in the original English article. The rationale behind the claim is likely to emphasize the merits of the Maritime Silk Road and to quell concerns of vested parties, which the rest of the piece focuses on by stressing the peaceful components of the approach. In a similar vein, arguments have been made in non-Chinese media that China has essentially co-opted the “String of Pearls” with a positive spin, with one analyst going as far as calling it a “recast” with “meretriciously benign terms.”
Notwithstanding, an examination of what encompasses both frameworks points to numerous similarities. The “String of Pearls” theory holds that China aims to establish port bases along key nodes connecting critical Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) in order to project power and safeguard Chinese oil imports. Strategic “pearls” along the “string” also include infrastructure development programs, such as a railway line in Cambodia, that would facilitate the transport of energy resources to the Chinese mainland. The focus on energy sources and the need for collaboration with regional governments to develop infrastructure schemes means there are inherently diplomatic and economic components to the theory.
Comparably, the Maritime Silk Road places an emphasis on infrastructure programs that will drive economic growth and development along its path and link the “road” component with the land-based “belt” component. The formal roadmap for the BRI was released by the National Development and Reform Commission [NDRC] in May 2015 and placed emphasis on projects of mutual benefit through greater regional integration and engagement. It calls to “promote the economic prosperity of the countries along the Belt and Road” in a “great undertaking that will benefit people around the world.” To achieve this, the roadmap calls for policy coordination, enhancing connectivity in transportation (both water- and land-based) and energy infrastructure, and removing barriers to trade.
Thus, commonalities between “String of Pearls” theory and the Maritime Silk Road include: 1) Deepening relationships with target countries; 2) Focusing on strategic waterways in the Indo-Pacific; 3) Developing infrastructure in target areas; 4) Sustaining and encouraging economic growth; and 5) Safeguarding and enhancing China’s energy security.
Aside from obvious variations in scope, the differences, then, are more nuanced and lay in what each framework emphasizes. The “String of Pearls” theory first articulated by BAH puts the military aspect of China’s endeavors front and center, in spite of an economic and development component centered on securing energy sources. The authors of the original report argue that Chinese control of port bases would grant it the ability to electronically eavesdrop on vessels—as it was then purportedly already doing through Gwadar—and, through greater naval access, better project power in critical waters. This not only would allow the PLA to dictate the right of transit—squeezing chokepoints and the transport of energy supplies in the event of a Taiwan contingency—but also pose a greater challenge to U.S. naval presence in the region.
In contrast, the Maritime Silk Road does not explicitly mention a military component to its projects. Rather, it stresses cooperative elements and “win-win” outcomes among vested players. In June 2017, the China’s NDRC and State Oceanic Administration released a plan for three “blue economic passages” for the Maritime Silk Road. Each outlines a maritime passage that connects segments of the land-based economic corridors. At the same time, China will foster cooperation on protecting marine environments and promoting maritime security and common oceanic governance. In line with BRI overtures, the document emphasized “the Silk Road Spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefits, shelving differences and building consensus.”
However, a deeper dive into specific projects is revealing. The “String of Pearls” theory has been reshaped since its conceptualization, given shifts in strategic dynamics and calculations—including the unprecedented rise of Xi Jinping—and continues to take form through debates and policy actions. In particular, the “pearls” that were identified in the initial report, may not be the “pearls” that analysts deem critical today, with the case of China’s base in Djibouti serving as a prime example. Yet, an examination of five of the original “pearls” paints an interesting picture of the significant overlap between the “String of Pearls” and the Maritime Silk Road/BRI:
[Select projects identified by the BAH report juxtaposed with BRI projects.]
Consequently, just because a military dimension is not explicitly mentioned in official statements and texts does not mean that one cannot be pursued or quickly developed on a strategic outpost, given familiarity with the geography and landscape and existing networks with local officials. Perhaps then, a key facet of China’s overall BRI strategy is the opportunity it grants the country’s leadership in crafting a narrative conducive to its broader strategic goals. A telling case study is found in Sino-Indian dynamics.
Many analysts in New Delhi were wary of the “String of Pearls” theory, arguing that China was encircling India. In response, India deepened cooperation with regional partners as part of larger efforts to counterbalance China’s influence. Beijing is cognizant of Indian views, with the Chinese Ambassador to India noting that an Indian scholar asked him why China was pursuing such a strategy. In his 2013 article in the People’s Daily, reposted on the Chinese Embassy in India’s website, he asserts that “there is no such issue as forming a so-called ‘String of Pearls’ to encircle India” [“根本不存在针对印度建立所谓“珍珠链”包围圈的问题.”]
Under BRI, Beijing can better control the optics of its policies. In a 2016 speech at the Indian Defense Institute, Liu Jinsong [刘劲松], the charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in India, emphasized China’s commitment to peaceful development and called for “win-win” cooperation. He notes that “there is simply no ‘String of Pearls’ strategy” [“根本没有什么 ‘珍珠链战略’”], that Beijing has never had the intention of “deterring or containing” India, and considers India an “important collaborative partner” that it hopes will “link up” with the BRI.
In short, there is overlap between the “String of Pearls” concept and the Maritime Silk Road initiative. The correlating nodes are due to their overall strategic significance along the vital transportation lines that both emphasize. China’s look westward too is likely a natural extension of supporting and ensuring its broader foreign policy goals, particularly in securing economic growth—a necessity to the performance legitimacy of its leadership. However, a study of the similarities and differences of the two point to China’s careful image crafting—likely in part stemming from backlash over its expanding regional presence and foreign media attention on the “String of Pearls”—and the possibility that facilities could be quickly flipped for military application.
It remains to be seen how China will pursue and adapt its strategy for the maritime commons and littorals spanning from the South China Sea to the Middle East, Africa, and beyond. As some commentators have noted, none of the original “pearls” have become military bases or facilities. Yet, China’s first overseas base in Djibouti—which lays beyond the original “pearls” and is touted as a critical part of the Maritime Silk Road—adds the first explicit military component to its Maritime Silk Road, with official statements underscoring the base’s objective of providing support for Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW). Notwithstanding, China has likewise used—and can continue to use—the existing agreements and contacts it has established with countries along the Belt and Road to support MOOTW that aren’t directly linked or tied to its projects and objectives under the BRI, such as evacuation of its civilians from distant countries, but that nonetheless support its broader endeavors.
 Of note, official Chinese sources have never claimed the term nor used it to describe their broader strategy in the associated waters and only mention it when rebuking foreign references to the theory. For example, the People’s Daily accused the United States of using a “so-called ‘String of Pearls’” to instigate tensions between China and littoral countries, specifically India, and draw in New Delhi to contain China. Mentions of the String of Pearls theory in Chinese media is generally preceded with “so-called” [“所谓”], indicating a probable rejection of the concept.