Saturday, March 06, 2010

China's 'pearls' spook Indian observers

China is weaving a web of trade and maritime agreements around its old rival India, encircling the country with strategically placed construction projects and schemes to enlarge port facilities. In the days of the Bush administration, US analysts hatched a theory that has since become accepted wisdom: China is putting together a “string of pearls” in India’s home ­waters.

“The ‘string’ is part of an indirect strategy, which ... aims to trap India in a spider’s web, reducing its options in the event of crisis,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Beijing claims it is pursuing exclusively commercial goals, but the ­Indian Ocean is China’s main route for importing energy supplies, increasing the likelihood that these facilities could be used for military purposes should a regional conflict erupt, observers say.

The project giving India most cause for concern is a Chinese-funded port being built at Gwadar on the coast of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

In Burma, another Chinese ally, Beijing is involved in the construction of ports at Sittwe, Mergui and Dawei. China is also extremely active in Sri Lanka, where it is busy developing the port of Hambantota. China Eximbank is funding 85% of the work on port facilities, worth an estimated $1bn. Beijing also helped fund part of the war effort against the Tamil separatist movement quelled last year.

In Bangladesh China is contributing to the modernisation of the deep-water port at Chittagong, slated to become a major container hub.

The last pearl on the string, Nepal, is a landlocked country but one that occupies a strategic position for Beijing. Since the unrest in Lhasa, the capital of neighbouring Tibet, in 2008, the Nepalese have come under pressure from China to tighten Tibetan border controls and suppress demonstrations by Buddhist monks in Kathmandu.

Last month the Nepalese prime minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal, led a visit to Beijing that, according to the Chinese media, resulted in an agreement on Sino-Nepali border security.

But an editorial published last month on the Chinese Global Times website sought to reassure. “Worry about China competing for dominance of the Indian Ocean runs deep inside India,” it explained. “Such worries are unnecessary. China watches closely over the Indian Ocean because oil imported from the Middle East and Africa has to go through it.”

So is the military threat posed by an increasingly tight string of pearls exaggerated? “The ports could serve as logistical bases should China’s navy need to evacuate its nationals from an emergency somewhere in Africa or the Middle East. But things could be much more complicated if there was a war on,” Cabestan said

© The Guardian Weekly

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