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China and the Lost Pearls

Friday, April 23, 2010

An expanded understanding of the ‘string of pearls’ strategy suggests a China that is more expansionist, more mercantilist, and less interested in ‘peaceful development’ than many analysts often contend.

The last decade was rough for the Japanese and South Koreans. North Korean missile launches, Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear program, a rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army, an increasingly aggressive Chinese navy—the defense establishments in America’s key Asian allies have not had this much to worry about since the Cold War ended. Things, of course, always find a way of getting worse.

A Chinese company, the Chuangli Group, has recently rebuilt and leased a pier at Rajin, on the Sea of Japan in North Korea—the initial term is for 10 years. This news has sparked speculation that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may one day establish a base there (especially given that the area already hosts a North Korean naval base), an idea causing heartburn in Tokyo and Seoul.

Some observers say such speculation is premature. They note that the deal is purely commercial in nature and that North Korea, which strictly limits contact with the outside world, would never allow a foreign military base on its own soil.

If we connect the ‘lost pearls’ in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Sea of Japan with China’s other island and port facilities, the string of pearls looks a lot like a perimeter around much of the Asian mainland.

While North Korea may fiercely guard its own sovereignty, the regime (irrationally) lives in constant fear of an American attack and, suffering under international sanctions, largely depends on China for its continued survival. How hard is it to believe that Kim Jong-Il—whose father welcomed hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers into the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War—might permit the establishment of a small Chinese naval base as a deterrent to an American attack or in return for increased Chinese investment?

And though the Rujin lease may be a commercial deal, few analysts believe that other Chinese port deals—such as those at Hambantota, Sri Lanka, and Chittagong, Bangladesh—are absent of strategic consequence. Indeed, China’s construction of commercial port facilities in the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea are generally considered to be part and parcel of what many call the “string of pearls” strategy.

With this strategy, China aims to extend its influence from Hainan in the South China Sea, west across the world’s busiest sea lines of communication (SLOCs), towards the Persian Gulf. Analysts widely believe that many of these port deals have been quietly accompanied by security agreements as well—China already has naval surveillance facilities in Burma’s Coco Islands and at Pakistan’s Gwadar port. In the Indian Ocean region, the strategy appears to be to contain India, ensure energy security, and control SLOCs.

But the recent news of China’s new port access on North Korea’s eastern coast may necessitate reassessing the “string of pearls” strategy. Consider the following. First, China has laid claim to virtually every island in the South China Sea and has already established military facilities on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel Islands. Second, improving cross-Strait ties aside, Beijing still intends to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary. Third, China lays claim (tenuously) to the Senkakus, islands under Japanese administrative control; Chinese naval incursions into this area surged over the past ten years. And now China has gained access—commercial access for the time being—to a North Korean port on the Sea of Japan.

Analysts widely believe that many of China’s port deals have been quietly accompanied by security agreements as well.

If we connect these “lost pearls” in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Sea of Japan with China’s other island and port facilities stretching from Hainan to the Middle East, the string of pearls looks a lot like a perimeter around much of the Asian mainland. Should China ever “reclaim” all of the territories described above, it would put itself in a position to monitor and control all of Asia’s busiest and most critical SLOCs; to contain Japan and Korea; to deny American access to the Asian littorals; and to gain direct access to the Pacific.

If this is China’s strategy, the People’s Republic should not expect to achieve results any time soon. Taiwan is not about to submit to Beijing’s rule nor is the Senkaku dispute anywhere near resolution. But as China’s rapid military buildup continues apace and America’s military advantage in the Asia-Pacific continues to wither away, Beijing will be increasingly capable of settling its disputes by coercion and force, if it so chooses.

An expanded understanding of the “string of pearls” strategy suggests a China that is more expansionist, more mercantilist, and less interested in “peaceful development” than many analysts often contend. Under this framework, Beijing’s designs on Taiwan, the Senkakus, and the South China Sea are not just about nationalism and natural resources—rather, they are core national security interests, which China believes are crucial both for defending its shorelines and dominating the Asia-Pacific.

It will behoove us to watch closely China’s activities in the Sea of Japan. Any signs of PLA naval activity at Rajin may augur a much more difficult decade in Asia than the one we hoped we’d left behind.

Michael Mazza is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Mazza also discussed the National Security Administration’s downgrade on China in “I Spy? Not Anymore,” and said, “Australia Understands the China Threat. Does the U.S.?” Michael Auslin recently criticized “Japan Dissing,” and Sung-Yoon Lee critiqued approaches to “Engaging North Korea.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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