Security and Strategic Implications of the So-called ‘String of Pearls Theory’ for India!
String of Pearl Strategy of China involves setting up naval infrastructure and bases in the Indian Ocean to protect its trade route and to have energy security.
The term ‘string of pearls’ was coined to describe China’s increasing forays into the Indian Ocean , discernible through its efforts to establish ‘nodes of influence’ in the region, via an assertive diplomacy that is primarily geared towards strengthening its economic and security ties with countries as diverse as Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In some cases, this firming up of ties has led to joint port construction or enlargement deals, such as with Pakistan at Gwadar, or with Sri Lanka at Hambantota.
It has been interpreted by New Delhi as Chinese strategy to encircle India and its long term policy of keeping India with South Asia. Growing Chinese influence in Indian Ocean region is a challenge to India’s geopolitical importance in the region. As geopolitical influence is a zero sum game, increase in Chinese influence will lead to decrease in Indian influence.
China’s so-called string of pearls strategy, the degree of advancement of which has frequently been overstated, is not likely to immediately put Indian maritime security in jeopardy. Nevertheless, there will, inevitably, come a time when India will have to face the reality of a Chinese naval presence in its own backyard. Beijing cannot afford for its Achilles heel, i.e., its acute vulnerability to any interruption of its overseas trade, to be bared for much longer.
Only when India’s strategic community grasps that India is already squarely poised over China’s energy jugular, will they be able to break with an acutely ingrained sense of vulnerability. Not only would the presence of Chinese vessels present no real existential threat to Indian naval dominance in the region, it would also, paradoxically, provide the Indian Navy with a far greater degree of tactical flexibility in the event of a future conflict with China, be it on land or at sea. This advantage can only be guaranteed, however, if India undertakes certain preparatory measures designed to effectively lock down its control of its maritime surroundings, and curb Chinese influence among certain key oceanic ‘swing’ states.
Finally, as China edges its way into the Indian Ocean over the course of the next few decades, both nations would do well to agree to draft a “Sino-Indian Incidents at Sea Agreement”, which could be loosely modelled on the Cold-War era INCSEA, and which helped prevent routine US-Soviet naval encounters from spiralling out of control. The quest for adequate military readiness and tactical flexibility does not, after all, render the prospect of a future Sino-Indian naval conflict any less dire.