String of Pearls: India and the Geopolitics of Chinese Foreign Policy

With the change of power in New Delhi, the connections between India and its neighbors have come alive once again. There are diplomatic visits, courtesy calls, exchange of gifts and promises between Mr. Modi and the heads of all of the surrounding countries, to not just counter the Chinese influence but also strengthen the Indian presence.

China’s move to veto action against Pakistan in the UN for the release of the 26/11 mastermind has brought the world’s attention back to the Sino-Pak relationship, the all-important pendant in China’s ‘string of pearls’ policy. For a long time, China has been accused of pursuing strategic maneuvers on a well-thought out route encircling India in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has been reaching out to India’s neighbours on the premise of development and trade, allegedly recreating the Silk Route. From Nepal in the south east to Myanmar, Bangladesh to Sri Lanka in the south and Pakistan in the west, China plans to choke India diplomatically. The increasing dependence of the Chinese on US maritime communications and the presence of the US’ 6th fleet in the region do not help matters, especially given its relationship with the US. However, the theory that aims at containing India’s influence over its neighbours has found its match with PM Modi’s ‘reverse string of pearls’.

The ‘string of pearls’ or its ‘reverse’ are foreign policy theories aimed largely at one agenda – influence in the Indian Ocean, the choke point for India and China’s energy supplies. The Malacca Straits, which transports nearly 80% of China’s oil and gas from the Middle East and African producers, has been China’s Achilles’ heel for decades. Worried about the security of its consignments in the Indian Ocean, China has constantly been pursuing a campaign of increasing its friendly influence in the region, the lack of which would result in its imports seriously threatened, leading to a possible energy shutdown, in the event of a military logjam with India. Case in point – India’s threat to cut off the Chinese chokepoint for oil in the Malacca Straits in 1971 (during the Bangladesh War) and 1999 (during the Kargil War), when India blocked the Karachi port.

Increasing energy demand and dependence on imports, at least until its shale gas production becomes sustainable, is forcing China to either find an alternative to the trade route or handle the situation diplomatically by cozying up to the countries in the Indian Ocean, four of which have significant Chinese presence – Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Myanmar

Even as the unconfirmed reports about Chinese presence in Coco Islands were firmly denied by China, India’s worries of Sino influence in Myanmar have not been entirely laid to rest. China has found a profitable shortcut to the Malacca route in the form of a recently opened 2,400 km long oil pipeline from the Maday port in Myanmar to Kunming in China. The route has not only helped Chinese imports avoid the pirates of Malacca but also cut the distance by 700 miles. Another pipeline from the Myanmarese port of Kyaupkyu has been opened to transport gas to China. In return, royalties and infrastructural development have been promised to Myanmar.

Myanmar holds considerable significance for India in its plans to fulfill the rising thirst for energy. Currently, 70% of the 16.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas produced in 2014 goes to Thailand and nearly all of the rest to China. India may not be an active importer of the Burmese gas but its increasing political influence could be detrimental to China’s imports, with Myanmar in control of the pipelines. While India has not been as successful with Myanmar, China has reasons to worry about India’s increasing authority. Also, given the right influence, money and reliable infrastructure, Myanmar’s gas that goes to China could well find its way into India.

Cognizant of the increasing Chinese activity, Modi has reached out to Myanmar for increased cooperation during the ASEAN and East Asia Summits – development of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral; highway and the Kadalan transport project as part of Modi’s ‘Act East Policy’. India continues to carry out military exercises in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, while China looks for a bird’s eye view from the Coco Islands where it, given the increasing Chinese influence in Myanmar, could possibly be present if not already.

Sri Lanka

The Lankan elections in January 2015 left Beijing surprised when its good friend Rajapaksa had to vacate the seat of power and Sirisena assumed the role. During the Rajapaksa era, Chinese premier Xi Jinping had achieved significant diplomatic progress with Sri Lanka, becoming the second largest trade partner and top investor in infrastructural projects – 2012-14 saw an influx of $2.1 billion as loans – all in the name of the alleged rejuvenation of the Silk-Route. Docking of two Chinese submarines on the Colombo port was indicative of the natural progression, military cooperation following economic ties. Chinese companies developed the strategic Hambantota port and have succeeded to gain controlling rights over it, a move that can have multiple ramifications. Situated at the southeastern edge of Sri Lanka, it falls en route taken by oil tankers from the Middle East and Africa to deliver oil and gas to China. From Hambantota, not only can the Chinese monitor their fleet, but also defend it as soon as its military presence is established at the port. However, with Sirisena at the helm, one is unsure of how these plans will pan out.

After coming to power, Sirisena declared his intentions of having equal relations with India and China, which essentially translates into either giving military access to India as well or taking it away from China. Sirisena opened a prime opportunity for India to allure its southern neighbor to counter the Chinese influence, and his remarks on the equality of relations made it too big an opening to miss. This prompted Prime Minister Modi’s historic visit to Sri Lanka – the first by an Indian head of the state in over 25 years – which involved talks over security and peace and urging the Lankan premier to find a solution to the Tamils issue with the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. The motive behind the new found Delhi-Colombo friendship was twofold: to create an easiness in the relationship that would enable military cooperation, strong enough to coax Sri Lanka into acting in India’s interests of stalling China’s maritime trade in the event of a standoff, and, to bring back the balance of diplomatic relations that had leaned too far in favor of China during the Rajapaksa government. Whether the objectives have been achieved or not remains to be seen, but Modi’s foreign policy seems to have dented one of China’s beloved pearls.

Bangladesh

Chittagong has long been China’s proud acquisition in Bangladesh, one that has worked well for the latter as well, helping it gain significant loans and trade benefits in exchange for considerable Chinese control over its largest port. Developed with the help of the Chinese in the last six years, Chittagong has seen their presence grow rapidly, a phenomenon that has worried India for long. Its proximity to India makes Chittagong strategically important for the Chinese, prompting huge financial and trade favors from Beijing to Dhaka. China has also been in talks to set up a naval base in Chittagong, which, it alleges, would be to protect its trade interests in the region, and help it achieve military and strategic inroads into the Indian Ocean to secure its oil route.

However, the recent visit by Modi has accomplished a significant feat in Dhaka, making China nervous about its relation with Bangladesh. As the decades-old land border dispute between India and Bangladesh gets resolved and the two countries work towards stronger bilateral relationships, a more strategic move has ruffled China’s feathers. India has gained direct access to the Chittagong port for its merchant vessels, a move that will help it establish greater presence. The fact that China could be developing a deep-sea facility off the coast of Bangladesh at Sonadia is a reason for concern for India, and would require deeper diplomatic ties with Dhaka to counter such strategic Chinese moves right in India’s backyard.

Pakistan

Now that China has been given management rights of Gwadar – the Pakistani port that has been entirely financed and developed by the Chinese Yuan – for the next four decades, the implications of the move could be significant for China, India and Pakistan. Gwadar’s strategic location serves multiple objectives for China. It rests on the Iranian border and overlooks the Strait of Hormuz, giving China an alternative solution to its oil and gas problems and is in close proximity to Indian waters and the western state of Gujarat, a strategic vantage point for military presence that can not only monitor Indian activities but also threaten them.

More than the obvious military purposes, Gwadar as China’s solution to its oil and gas woes interests Beijing. Gwadar gives China the much required access to the Middle Eastern oil and gas, even completely taking its oil off the Indian Ocean, a possibility that excites Beijing as it would no longer threaten its oil supplies in the wake of a contest with India. This also explains why China swooped in with the proposal to develop the former Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, a project that was shelved due to India’s concerns over the security of the pipeline in the Pakistani region, now known as the Iran-Pakistan-China pipeline. The pipeline strategically touches Gwadar in Pakistan before moving on to Nawabshah and further to China. The IPC pipeline not only gives China the access to the Iranian natural gas but also other Middle Eastern imports through offloading of its oil tankers at Gwadar from where the pipelines can carry the consignments.

Gwadar is indeed a pearl for China, one that milks oil and gives China military presence in a strategic region from where much of India’s oil also travels. Pakistan gets significant returns on China’s investment, not only restricted to development and dollars but also in the form of constant military pressure on India. PM Modi’s efforts to reach out to Pakistan have not resulted in anything fruitful from Islamabad, which could well be the case in future as China’s backing continues and military presence increases.

Vietnam

Given China’s insatiable thirst for oil, the significance of the South China Sea can’t be stressed enough, making Vietnam a strong cog in the oil wheel of China, one that at the moment is malfunctioning. Vietnam and China have seldom seen eye to eye and the Chinese aggression in the South China Sea has not helped matters. Consequently, Vietnam assumes considerable significance for India in its efforts to contain Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Vietnam is one of the very few Chinese neighbors who have the military capability to ward off an attack, as exemplified in the 1979 Chinese attempted invasion of the country. Apart from the naval exercises that China regularly carries out in the South China Sea, it has also laid claim on the oil that sits under the seabed, to the extent of threatening Vietnam against making any offshore oil deals as well as ordering India to stop any such advances. However, during the recent visit of the Chinese premier to India, India’s foreign minister was in Hanoi inking oil exploration deals with Vietnam. Taking the diplomatic relations between India and Vietnam a step further, defense deals were struck that involved Hanoi receiving new naval vessels from India.

Through Vietnam, India could keep a keen eye on China’s oil exploration and military exercises in the South China Sea. In the race of becoming the regional superpower, both India and China are looking for opportunities to create stronger energy independence. Vietnam is one of India’s pearls that can help it during turbulence with China, while the oil that comes with it is complimentary.

Nepal

The non-oily pearl of China, Nepal has been a strategic and good-to-have partner for China but has a deeper multi-faceted relationship with India, offering inroads into one for the other. The immediate assistance and support provided to Nepal during the recent earthquake gave Kathmandu an assessment of its diplomatic relations. India and China vied for space in rescue operations and were quick to offer whatever support the torn Himalayan kingdom required, both making Nepal a devastated arena for a diplomatic duel that has been raging for years.

Nepal has played the role of the geopolitical pivot in the Sino-India relationship and the broader international relations in the region. While, Nepal’s political class, the one that overthrew monarchy, believes India’s relationship with Nepal to be pseudo-colonial and expansionist, calling Nepal India’s backyard bonded bazaar, China is seen as the big investor in the small firm, one that has been responsible for infrastructural development. However, India is closer to Nepal in terms of the culture, language and geography and exerts considerable influence on the politics, a position China envies. Beijing is exerting increasing influence in Nepal through heavy investments and a slap on the wrists every now and then for Nepal’s pro-Tibet stance.

India’s interest in Nepal is compounded by the huge hydro reserves the latter enjoys, one that might just be the answer to India’s power woes. Work on tapping Nepal’s hydro power potential of nearly 80,000 MW has already been started with a recently signed $1.4 billion deal with GMR, an Indian infrastructure company, to develop a 900 MW dam on the upper Karnali River. The energy and power angle gives India an edge over China, but manufacturing and trade investments by China have kept the game interesting.

China and India are constantly looking for better energy pastures. In the process, the two global giants are moving towards a diplomatic stand-off that could devastate the balance of peace in the Indian subcontinent, which, as it is, hangs by a mere thread. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, that were earlier thick with the Chinese are slowly embracing New Delhi’s reach out potentially becoming India’s strength in the region. The near-equal influence exerted in these countries by India and China could result in a neutral stance taken by them in the event of a war. However, China has the support of India’s western neighbor, one that has so far been diplomatically deaf to India’s efforts. But to counter that, Vietnam is rapidly becoming to India what Pakistan is to China. The US dynamic also plays a significant role here, especially when considering the oil wealth of the Middle East that India’s strong US ties can get it access to, countered by China only through its energy and diplomatic relations with Iran.

While the ‘string of pearls’ policy may give Chinese energy better security in the Indian Ocean, the reverse of it will give India access to more oil and gas while countering Chinese military influence in the region and diminishing the diplomatic threat to itself. At the cusp of military and energy security balances the diplomatic battle is raging in the region, one that may not have a clear winner for years but has generated enough interest for the world to watch the passive stand-offs keenly. China has been pursuing its ‘string of pearls’ policy against India for more than a decade, but only now has the dynamic started to change, with Modi driving his own ‘reverse string of pearls’ policy, snatching one pearl at a time until China stands red-faced holding the mere string.

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  • Miguel Chamintes

    The author assumed that the string of pearls’ policy of China has been designed against India and using the term “reverse” string of pearls’ policy to counter China’s action. If string of pearls’ policy were designed to benefit the related countries around India, would “reverse” string of pearls’ policy undo the benefits to the related countries? Hopefully, India’s “reserve” string of pearls’ policy is designed to benefit the related countries around India and to be a constructive competition with the China’s string of pearls’ policy that for sure is good for India’s neighbor.

  • mcs

    India must continue relentless economic expansion with global outlook, regardless of what China and Pakistan do since India cannot control either. The strength is not in neutralizing their moves but creating a security system powered by India’s rising economic power which can deal with any threat. It will dampen any reactionary move on part of Pakistan or China against India.

  • Marcus Stenson

    Very interesting insights here. But India’s presence cannot be as strong as China’s – India may have a smart policy and may be a vital country in the region – but China is not so easy to counter because of the Security Council seat and the numerous territorial claims it stakes and pursues. It’s almost like China is eating up countries.

  • Samantha

    So what does this mean for India’s relationship with the BRICS? Do you (the author) think that this agenda colours the the relationship between India and the other four?

  • VMJ

    Miguel Chamintes, why would you say that China is India’s good neighbour? Do you forget Aksai Chin?

    Ashay Abbhi, what are your views on the impact on territorial disputes with these changes between India and China? When India is busy with territorial disputes with its other neighbours and are also engaged in some major territorial matters – but there you can see that there is no agreement or positive changes. Now in Modiji’s regime, there can be some positive changes, but will China agree with our ambitions.

  • Pratyush

    Good article. Just curious – is there a conscious choice to not include Thailand? The slow development of the Thailand – Russia cooperation axis can throw caution to the winds here.

  • Brian

    I liked the article. Some great thoughts there. Is this a part of a series? You should probably revisit this or come up with a continuation.

  • Aditya Mookerjee

    I don’t think that the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is a threat to India because the peninsular landmass of India is situated in the Indian Ocean. Also, India is a neighbour of Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China and Burma. The Chinese coast is at a distance from the Indian Ocean. In my mind, China doesn’t see India initiating military hostilities against her. There seems to be no reason for China to initiate hostilities against India either. I don’t think China is preparing to pre-empt a military strike against herself by India. She is trying to pre-empt an unforeseen event.

  • Govind Ramanathan

    Aditya Mookerjee, that is a myopic thought. Look at China’s territorial disputes – it has one with every neighbouring country. It is a matter of time before it will eat into the Indian Ocean and mess things up in the region. China is like a mother hen. You have no idea how many eggs it has under it at any given time. And when she gets up, they’re hatched.

  • Sash

    Insightful article. India’s equation with China is complicated and any move by India in the region would be closely monitored and countered by its neighbour.

  • Mixa

    China is not Zimbabwe, Iraq, or Yemen. It’s not Grenada or Haiti.

    China is not going to be intimidated by a chest-beating schoolyard bully.

    This can only end badly for the U.S., its allies, and the rest of the world.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    Hi Miguel. While the string of pearls and its reverse were designed for a larger goal (security rests at the core of which, energy and military), the related countries are certainly the ones benefiting from it. Both, India and China, are trying to exert influence with the help of development projects in these countries. So, while the competition is constructive for the time being but in the event of any hostility, it will turn into a test for their countries.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    Economic expansion is the key to the future energy security. China has had a strong headstart over India, and that requires some damage control in the form of neutralizing some of China’s advances into India’s neighbors. India may not be able to reach far, given the time China has spent with these countries, but with some luck and a lot of economics and politics, India could gain a crucial ally or two in the region.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    I completely agree with your point. China has been in the game far too long for India’s comfort. But India’s reverse policy will help counter at least some Chinese influence. While the Security Council seat is a certain roadblock, it is imperative for India to look beyond it and create/convert neighbors to help her politically, economically and energy-wise at the local level.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    Thanks for the very interesting question, Samantha. China has been pursuing the String of Pearls for quite some time but it is only recently that India has started the reverse of it. The underlying politics is quite evident, however, appearances must be maintained. China and India would likely be cordial and work together at BRICS, while the back-hand strategy to counter each other in the subcontinent continues. China has an obvious edge over India owing to its UNSC seat and aggressive business and economic expansion techniques, but India seems to be catching up.
    Of the other four, I believe that only Russia is present in the same geopolitical context as India and China. Beijing’s growing proximity to Moscow and Moscow’s long-standing relationship with New Delhi make for an interesting game. However, as far as Brazil and South Africa are concerned, the relationships seem to be purely economic but both India and China would want them as allies because, well, the more the merrier.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    The question of territorial disputes is certainly one that should worry India. China, an agitated China over the developments in the Indian Ocean, would be more likely to aggravate territorial disputes with India. It would be a hard feat to achieve any success in that area even for the present government but the smart tactic of reaching out to the neighbors should deter China. The more support India gets in the region, the tougher it will be for China to carry out its activities.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    Thanks for dropping by, Pratyush. True, the Thailand-Russia relationship could change things but that’s part of a different nexus.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    Thanks for your encouraging comments, Brian. The plan is certainly to build this into a series. Any suggestions on what you’d specifically like to read about are most welcome.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    Aditya, one might mistake the distance of China’s boundary from India’s neighbors to be a deterrent but sadly, it isn’t so. China’s purpose to influence the other countries goes beyond military hostilities. The world has moved on from military warfare to a political and economic game, one in which India still has a lot of ground to cover. The ‘string of pearls’ policy and the reverse of it are aimed at gaining political traction against each other. A full-blown war may never happen but the political and economic wars need to be won and this seems to be the way to do it.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    The analogy is perfect and sums it up well. Thanks, Govind.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    True, Sash. The complication is what makes the game so much more interesting and edgy.

  • Geeta

    Ashay, I am very proud to know you and to read your work. You have a wonderful grasp on the subject. Your capacity to articulate your thoughts is very enticing for the reader to understand and process the thinking that goes into your article.

    I do not necessarily dismiss China at large when it comes to policy. Often, in my understanding, there is so much more to what meets the eye. China is an iceberg floating in the waters – and you won’t know what damage it can wreak until you crash into it. The trouble with all this is that China draws you to it, it doesn’t bamboozle you as a country directly. That said, I gather that your assessment of China is as far as one can get when it comes to its dealings in the subcontinent and beyond. I am particularly interested to see what it can do when it comes to maritime security and territory, particularly in its relations with other South East Asian Nations. It will be very interesting to see how this dynamic will find a place in the context of India and China getting together as a part of the BRICS, and also in the context of the new Iran nuclear deal – which also puts Afghanistan and Pakistan into the picture.

    Ashay, keep it up.

  • Rick Tasker

    Thanks for an interesting article, Ashay. From here in the U.S., before reading your blog, I only saw us as the ones really standing up to China’s unfair territorial claims. We are strengthening our alliance system throughout the Pacific and SE Asia in a major effort, and I have been happy to see this now includes India. But here in America we also have a more nuanced and benign view of Chinese mercantilism. Let them develop and trade and become a major contributor to global prosperity and cohesion. And it will be wonderful when India does the same. You are the world’s largest democracy, and like us, the inheritor of the many great institutions of Great Britain, and that will stand you in good stead in any competition with anyone.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    Thank you so much for your encouraging words and for sharing your thoughts on this, Ms. Geeta. It is indeed interesting to see how China’s maritime policies will pan out with respect to India and other countries. As far as the Iran nuclear deal is concerned, China would be pleased with the decision to lift the sanctions, which translates to possibly lower crude oil prices due to the glut in the market. Technology-wise, China would keenly observe the dynamic and be ready to provide any support it can to Iran.

  • Ashay Abbhi

    I am glad you liked the article, Mr. Tasker, thank you for your kind words. Historically, India has been passive aggressive regarding issues with China, resorting to dialogue instead of action. This stance seems to be changing now, with New Delhi reaching out to its neighbors in an attempt to contain Chinese influence. The US may look at Chinese mercantile policies as harmless but given its geographical proximity to India, it would be detrimental to India’s economy and security to take that view.
    Being the two largest democracies, India and the US will certainly take on any competition, but I believe that China doesn’t play with the same rules. It often changes the game to suit itself, leaving countries like India far behind in the contest.
    India has long been a mere spectator to the geopolitics in the sub-continent but as it develops and evolves into a confident global citizen, its security, land, water, and energy could be threatened, to avoid which the government has rightly started countering China’s influence.

  • Aditya Mookerjee

    I don’t see the common neighbours of India and China choosing one nation over the other diplomatically. It is in the interests of Nepal, and Burma to have amicable relations with both India and China. The neighbours of India, barring Pakistan, have good relations with both India and China, though it might be more of a priority for India to have good relations with those neighbours, who don’t also share a boundary with China, along with China too. According to me, the relation that India has with Bangladesh is more relevant to the present at the border, and at the two national capitals. It is very important for India to have good relations with Sri Lanka too, being neighbours, and China doesn’t have many pressing matters regarding border issues with Sri Lanka.

  • Raju Yadav

    I think China is at least 50 years ahead of India. Now India should not vie China on any front. Now China will have a greater influence in Nepal. if China extends railways from Xingate to Kathmandu, China will knell down India forever. Now the oil blockade on Nepal will materialize China’s plan to extend the railway up to Kathmandu.It is better to walk with a rich man than a poor chap as the former offers secure future. So let us not talk about pearls of China’s strings of pearls.

  • Zetta

    Dear Ashay Addhi,
    Greetings from Mongolia. “China threat” is not only a big issue for India. Mongolia and China are long existed neigbours and never been in mutual trust. This super giant can easily take control if the another neighbour (Russia) never existed. Mongolia is exemplary classic democratic country in Asia, and has been looking for its third neighbour since 1990. We consider India as “Spiritual neighbour”. Please respond some of my questions ASAP.
    How can Indian – Mongolian partnership come against China? What kind of cooperation could be the best option for both of us?

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