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Whither ‘string of pearls’?

James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College, write on the much-quoted ‘string of pearls’ theory:

“A subset of the larger debate over Chinese sea power is Beijing’s supposed quest for a ‘string of pearls’, or network of Indian Ocean naval bases. The term originated in a classified Booz Allen study and was popularized by the Washington Times in 2005.

Few Indian Ocean specialists still view the string of pearls as a nascent base network … They are more apt to scoff at the term. So fierce was the backlash that Booz Allen undertook a new study of the concept in 2009, in an apparent effort to distance the firm from its own past work. Scales, it seems, fell from analysts’ eyes.

Today, the conventional wisdom seems to be that China will settle for access to ‘places, not bases’ in the Indian Ocean. If so, Beijing is negotiating agreements that grant Chinese vessels the right to call at ports like Gwadar, Hambantota, and Chittagong to rest, refuel, and perhaps refit.

“China entertains little desire for a wholly-owned base network comparable to the [US] outposts in Japan, Guam, Hawaii and elsewhere. In all likelihood, Chinese leaders are simply creating options for themselves—as prudent leaders do.

If the Indian Ocean strategic environment remains nonthreatening ... Beijing can spare itself the expense and hassle of maintaining such [major] facilities."

See the full text of their article here. See also their 2008 critique here.

See also, our earlier posts:

‘String of Pearls’ or 'New Silk Road’? (Nov 2010)

India’s troubles in Sri Lanka (Dec 2010)