Eye’s On the Pearls: Chinese Policy Implications for the Indian Ocean


Chinese Freighter carrying cargo in the Indian Ocean

Chinese Freighter carrying cargo in the Indian Ocean


The essence of “great power” is the ability to project power beyond their one’s borders upon countries beyond them. Chinese history is famous for being the center of Asian civilization for centuries, where small nations and tribes would give homage to the Emperor’s Court with gifts in return for security. It is also marked by invasions and subjugations of these groups, from Vietnam to Korea and even the Mongol tribes in modern Mongolia. The apex of this prosperity was reached when Admiral Zheng He led an armada of Chinese ships across the South China See and into the Indian Ocean. There, they displayed fabulous riches of the Chinese culture and economic prowess. More importantly, however, they showcased the might of the Middle Kingdom and created the first instance of a great overseas empire, long before the Portuguese, Spanish and British ever founded their colonial empires.

Zheng He

Zheng He

Today’s modern China does not possess a great navy like then. Only recently, in academic, policy and now government circles, have conversations been opened on reconstituting a great navy. Like several of the great naval powers before, China is driven by intense interest protect it’s shores and project power into the Near Seas for strategic defense against outsiders. The central theme is that China is reliving not only the era of Zheng He, but also the lives of past seafaring nations that forged power by gunboat diplomacy and economic imperialism. Ironically, it intensely driven by business,seeking opportunities overseas while pressuring Beijing to protect them. The centrality of history, as Henry Kissenger remarks in On China, is a justification for why China must relive the glory of being a peaceful diplomat for protection, and economic patron. No place is a better example of this strategy than the Indian Ocean.

From Mogadishu to Malacca

China has possessed extraordinary opportunities to challenge the existing international regime by expanding its influence to the Indian Ocean. The region is arguably the most important conduit for international trade in the world. Oil from the Persian Gulf passes east through the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, around India, passing barges of raw materials from China and other Southeast Asian countries bound for the west. The Malacca Strait and several adjoining inlets in Indonesia are the most well trafficked areas of the world for trade, processing more ships and cargo than either the Suez or Panama Canals. They also pose the greatest security risks, especially to maritime piracy that is prevalent in both the South China Sea and the Arabian Sea.

If business is the driver for overseas expansion, than the phenomenon of globalization has thrust China into a position for exerting its own influence on Indian Ocean. Chinese businesses and government aid programs have been involved in local development across the region in places like Sri Lanka, Burma, Pakistan and the Seychelles, according to journalist Geoff Dyer. The most significant business development is the development of an overland pipeline from Ramree, Burma to Yunnan, China, providing an opportunity to ship oil overland and bypass the strait. Ramree is just one of several “pearls” Beijing is eager to cultivate. That eagerness in part is influenced by  Chinese commercial interests that have been steadily gaining influence of policymaking in the Chinese Communist Party.

Ramree Pipeline under Construction

Ramree Pipeline under Construction

While claimed by the Chinese government to be an entirely peaceful and commercial development, it will naturally require military forces to ensure protection of these assets, as past empires have done. Like the British, who used  naval power to caw the Chinese to subservience in the Opium Wars, Beijing will be looking to employ its own naval power to protect its merchants. Today,  China is involved in a number of anti-piracy missions alongside NATO and the United States along the coast of Somalia and the Arabian Sea. Beijing has not long enjoyed a strong navy since the days of  the Ming and should be seeking every opportunity to build the institutional experiences  of its fleets. The addition of the Liaoning, its first fast carrier, is a signal of Chinese intentions to mark economic growth with projection of their own strength. It is still decades away from having the carrier groups and naval prowess possessed by the United States, according to Mark O’Hanlon of Brookings Institute.

The Need for Balance

Strategically, the Indian Ocean is an irresistible opportunity for China to develop an overseas presence as the United States had done in the Far East over the last sixty years. The distractions of the War on Terror and Afghanistan created openings that China has been willing to exploit over the years, including political opportunities to create friends in the region. Pakistan is a case an point, due to the deteriorating relationship with the U.S. and ever present specter of India as a major regional power in South Asia. Finally, most of the countries are not bound by bilateral defense and security agreements that constrain movement and expansion like those that exist in the Western Pacific. We need only look at the current disputes between China and Japan to understand Chinese aggression is directly colliding with an essential U.S. ally.

The United States has been accused of following a containment policy towards China, even by Vietnam and Australia who remain on close ties with both countries. Focusing China’s attention on the Indian Ocean might be advantageous to taking attention away from Japan and the South China Sea. Containing China through the pivot to Asia might attract an international incident, endangering both the stability of the region and U.S.-Chinese economic relations. Allowing Beijing to cultivate their assets in the Indian

The String of Pearls Network of Chinese assets and bases situated throughout the Indian Ocean

The String of Pearls Network of Chinese assets and bases situated throughout the Indian Ocean

Ocean provides breathing space that could pacify Chinese parties clamoring for expansion in the near seas. The military presence required for anti-piracy missions could also be a useful way to test Chinese military intentions and focus them on peaceful policing of the sea lanes. By appeasing economic interests, we can demonstrate our continued willingness to work with, not bow, to Beijing.

President George W. Bush ignored China’s interests in favor pressing the war on terror. Now the Obama Administration is reentering the traditional sphere of American foreign policy, engaging allies that have felt abandoned to a powerful “big brother” figure in China. His visits to ASEAN countries are answering fears of a second Cold War scenario or a repeat of the Ukrainian Crisis with either Senkaku or the South China Sea. An opportunity to deflect Chinese interest in the Near Seas gains time to engage Beijing in a long-term solution for peace in the Far East. Balance of Power politics is about influencing the priorities of other states through some level of deterrence, whether it be by military, political or economic means. To play the great game with China, dangling the pearls of the Indian Ocean on our own terms could serve as a plausible foreign policy tactic for the administration.

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