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The notion of a string of pearls (SOP) – strategic assets cultivated by China around India’s peripheries – was first put forward by a team of Booz Allen consultants to the Pentagon in 2003. One has come to expect any strategic vision about South Asia, accurate or otherwise, to emanate from the West for New Delhi has been notoriously inept at doing so itself. The SOP theory has its adherents and those who lampoon it too. Sadly, both sides are prone to exaggeration in the defence of their views.

It is easy to understand why hawks in India exaggerate – they have to get their message through to an indolent government and a sluggish bureaucracy that is the epitome of inertia. India’s nuclear project, its missile programme, its nuclear submarine enterprise, and its adventures in designing a Light Combat Aircraft, the Tejas, to name but a few ventures, show a lag rate that would make the planners of the Almudena seem industrious by comparison! Critics of SOP argue, and rightly so, that Chinese interest in Marao, the Coco Islands, Hambantota, and Gwadar is economic and has not yet taken on a military dimension. However, threat perceptions are not just about present capabilities but also trajectories, previous record, and potential.

Why do many Asians see China as a threat? What makes any state a threat? There is no denying that proximity to a rising power can be uncomfortable, as Mexico and the Europeans can vouch for. As the Austrians, Danes, and French felt the first slaps of the coming Second Reich, and Mexico of America’s Manifest Destiny, Asian states on the Chinese periphery wonder what is in store for them. Neither Beijing’s words nor actions have given them any reason to be sanguine; while Washington can afford to preach restraint, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Tokyo, Manila, Delhi, and Hanoi to do the same.

Another reason China’s rise is not trusted is the opacity of the state. Little is known with any surety about China’s military capabilities, ambitions, and scope, and even the country’s economic data is not quite reliable. Travel, for foreigners, is relatively free but some areas remain restricted or even forbidden. Interestingly, one of the features countries the United States has usually seen as unfriendly or hostile – China (pre-rapprochement), North Korea, Soviet Union – all share this characteristic.

China’s growing military budget – at least that which they admit to – is yet another concern for its neighbours. Larger neighbours such as Russia have less to worry about as the remnants of its arsenal assembled during the Cold War against the United States is sufficient to balance China. However, other states, particularly Japan and India, worry when a nuclear neighbour spends a greater portion of its Gross Domestic Product on the military, over $100 billion last year. In comparison, the US budget is seven times greater, but Japan spends less than $60 billion and India less than $50 billion on their militaries. The US has less to fear from a rising China for a little longer than the latter’s less fortunate neighbours.

Lest one dismiss a rapidly modernising and increasingly capable military, and if one is comfortable with not knowing what the world’s largest military is up to on one’s borders, Chinese rhetoric does not allow peaceful sleep. China’s leaders have been urging their armed forces to be ready to fight and win a war, while its navy has been considering acquiring bases in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere. China’s recent “re-understanding” of the maritime boundaries around the Senkakus and its economic prerogatives in the South China Sea show that Beijing’s rhetoric is not mere hot air. In light of Chinese behaviour on the seas, China’s territorial claims against India in Arunachal Pradesh should cause some concern in Delhi. On a parallel note, it is interesting to see reactions on the other end of the spectrum to Iranian rhetoric on Israel and the Jewish community.

Aggressive Chinese behaviour may be a new discovery to Western strategists, but is not new at all to its neighbours. Just in living memory, the Chinese have invaded Vietnam (1979), clashed with the Soviets (1968), attacked India (1962), and annexed Tibet (1950). In fact, since 1949, China has had 23 territorial disputes, of which seven (including Tibet) remain unresolved. A 2010 report by the Pentagon noted that in 2008, “the Indian military had recorded 270 border violations and nearly 2,300 cases of ‘aggressive border patrolling’ by Chinese soldiers.” On the seas, China’s infamous nine-dashed line has expanded against China’s neighbours, and as US Navy Captain James Fanell, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence and Information Operations for US Pacific Fleet, recently observed, “China is knowingly, operationally and incrementally seizing maritime rights of its neighbours under the rubric of a maritime history” that is strongly contested. One wonders if Russia would receive the same understanding if it started to aggressively patrol around Georgia or the Gulf of Narva.

There is, of course, the psychology of the Chinese state. Not only does Beijing see itself as the centre of the universe, but this Sinocentric conceptual imperialism, as China expert Christopher Ford calls it, seeks to control how others see China too. The Party reserves for itself “proprietary interest not only in how the rest of the world acts toward China, but also in how it depicts and understands China.” This totalitarian view of international politics, one that is deeply ingrained, usually makes democracies uncomfortable.

Do all these observations indicate an imminent invasion, brutal occupation, and annexation of India? Of course not. Yet even if the possibility of all-out war is minuscule, China has shown an adroitness when it comes to “salami tactics,” that is, incremental and small escalations which seem inconsequential on their own. It would be foolish to dismiss the Chinese threat or not view Chinese action in one’s backyard without due suspicion. Threats are measured not by intentions but by potential capabilities – it takes little time to change the former, while the latter takes years to develop. So the real question is, how long would it take for China to turn an ostensibly economic string of pearls into a military garotte around India? How quickly can India deploy counter measures? Is it possible that China’s “pearls” are being used as signals intelligence posts or bases for hydrographic research for its submarines?

While China’s intentions are admittedly not clear, what is clear is the incredibly slow Indian response time to threats. Rear Admiral (retd.) James Goldrick of the US Navy had an interesting observation about China’s maritime assets and plans: “China’s naval expansion is substantial and extensive, and it is not going to stop…China is using its civil maritime security forces increasingly effectively… The civil units of the various rapidly expanding agencies are now ‘white fleets’ which allow China to manage situations in a way that puts the onus – and the blame – on any opponent if the latter should resort to military force.”

China’s string of pearls, therefore, may not yet be a threat but Chinese acquisitions – be they material or diplomatic influence – certainly constitute the framework of a future problem. Beijing is certainly not making it easier for its neighbours to get over centuries of mistrust and mistreatment, and India should be wary of any attempt to downplay the danger.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on February 08, 2013.