The term “string of pearls” is commonly used to denote the extensive strategy of the PRC to comprehensively expand its presence in the Indo-Pacific region. We note right away that although such a strategy is undoubtedly present (for example, in the form of its most important element, which is the political and economic concept of the Belt and Initiative), this term is not used in China itself. Since it is, as they say, not of “local” origin.
It owes its appearance to American political science of the late nineties early two thousands, which at that time was quite high-quality, capable of adequately assessing the situation in the world and predicting its most probable development well.
The most important such forecast was the prediction of the transformation of the PRC (over the next ten years) into a second world power and, consequently, the main geopolitical opponent of Washington, which, after the end of the Cold War, found itself alone at the top of the world military-political-economic hierarchy. This forecast turned out to be accurate both in terms of content and timing.
Let us note the prompt reaction of the political leadership of the United States of that time to this forecast and that, generally speaking, such “link” between science and the ruling elite does not happen everywhere and not always. Among the preventive measures taken then (which undoubtedly included the invasion of Afghanistan that followed the notorious “events of 9/11” 2001), the most important place was given to the transformation of India into a “natural counterbalance” to China.
It was then that the concept of the “string of pearls” strategy, which the PRC allegedly adheres to in relation to India, was thrown into the political space (from Washington, we will emphasize this again). This strategy was to conquer the prevailing influence of Beijing on the countries in the immediate vicinity of India. On the continental territory these include Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan. In the basin of Indian Ocean Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles are the countries. Since recently, this “thread” also includes the countries of the Persian Gulf and East Africa.
Let us emphasize that the above-mentioned “stuffing” was by no means a product of only speculative constructions of some overseas political wiseacres. Like any provocation of a similar plan (for example, those aimed at overthrowing some “bad” governments), this one turned out to be viable only for one reason: as they say, more or less suitable conditions have developed “on the ground”.
Our publications have repeatedly noted that in the entire short history of bilateral relations between independent India and China, a solid “portfolio” of various kinds of negativity has accumulated. In particular, without any visible presence of the “overseas factor” in the seemingly routine electoral process in this or that element of the “string of pearls” turns into a reason for not small “concerns” in both Delhi and Beijing. As it was recently the case, for example, in Nepal, Sri-Lanka, in the Maldives.
The nature of these concerns is clear at least in relation to Delhi, for the indicated countries, we repeat, are included in the aforementioned “thread”, which is sometimes presented in the form of a “pearl necklace” on the body of India, and which at “the right moment” can turn into a stranglehold on its neck.
Note, however, that all these images are a direct consequence of the “European-rational” understanding of the surrounding world, which at one time served as the basis for the concept of Realpolitik by Otto von Bismarck. Which, in turn, almost 2500 thousand years ago in the same Europe had ideological predecessors, who believed that if Athens “sharply strengthened”, then for Sparta it is not good and something “preventive” must be taken. The consequence of this was a catastrophic civil war, which actually ended the great Greek-antique culture.
The author still hopes that the specificity of a much more plastic “Asian” thinking will allow the two leading powers of the continent (India and China) to bypass the “Thucydides trap” that lies in wait for them if they follow the logic of Realpolitick in relations with each other. It is not at all necessary to consider it as a challenge to national interests that China is building bridges, roads, power plants and other “accompanying” facilities in Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
In some places (for example, in Pakistan on the coast of the Arabian Sea) military objects appear? – This is true, but China, like everyone else, has the right to military construction, as well as the use of military tools in order to ensure national interests. In addition, the ships of the Indo-Pacific and US Central Commands, that is, of the country located on the other side of the globe, have been “grazing” here constantly and long before the Chinese ones.
In response, a reproach may well follow: “It is easy to engage in peacemaking moralizing, being in the position of an outside observer. We have not seen anything bad from the Americans (at least over the past 20-30 years). Quite the contrary. But with China, as you say yourself, a hefty “portfolio” has already accumulated. We still cannot resolve the last conflict in Ladakh, they have decided to build a dam in Tibet on Brahmaputra (whatever they call this river after their own). Moreover, we suspect that Pakistani jihadists have acquired Chinese drones. So we are waiting for new problems in our part of Kashmir, where even without that a week does not pass without armed incidents. “
In addition to insignificant general maxims, it is difficult to say anything weighty and concrete in response to this. Following its own understanding of the situation developing in the region, Delhi is expanding all-round cooperation with the United States, in particular, in the countries of the “string of pearls”. In this regard, the regular meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense of India and the United States (in the so-called “2+2 format”), which took place in the capital of the former in early October this year. At the end of the meeting the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who participated in it went to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, completing one of his last overseas tours with visits to Indonesia and Vietnam.
At the end of November, a trilateral meeting of national security advisers from Sri Lanka and the Maldives, as well as India, was held in Colombo. The previous meeting of this format took place six years ago. As then, the basis of the agenda was the development and implementation of various kinds of infrastructure projects in the first two countries. In the comments of the Indian media, the common thread runs through the topic of competition with a similar kind of Chinese projects. Attention was also drawn to the mention, firstly, of the factor of attempts to designate the presence in Sri Lanka and the Maldives of the United States and Japan, and, secondly, the military-political project Quad featuring the latter two countries, India and Australia.
Not surprisingly, the aforementioned meeting in Colombo was not ignored in China. The headline of the Global Times article “US-propelled India puts pressure on small countries” accurately reflects the attitude of the PRC both to this event itself and in general to increasingly coordinated actions of their opponents in the Indo-Pacific region.
Let us repeat, however, that the objects of the political game of “tug of war” are not only the “sea”, but also the “continental” links of the “string of pearls”. In recent months, Nepal has become the focus of the increased attention of Beijing and Delhi, where, after some changes in the power structures, high government officials of India and China have become frequent visitors.
In conclusion, we will nevertheless turn to the same “general” maxims in connection with the increasingly obvious situation of absurdity that is taking shape at the world “game table”. When, against the backdrop of global problems of an almost catastrophic plan, players continue to engage in petty intrigues. As if some inhabitants of ancient Pompeii continued to move the fence separating their possessions, not paying attention to the eruption of Vesuvius that had already begun.
It is this image that appears when observing everything that happens around the countries of the “string of pearls”.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.