Some 600 years ago, Zheng He—a Muslim eunuch from Yunan—sailed past the Spratly Islands round the Straits of Malacca, past the Andaman Islands to reach India and from there, the Horn of Africa, in an epic voyage which was not repeated by Chinese mariners till the coming of age of the Middle Kingdom in the 20th century under Communist rule. Today with China emerging as a global power whose fleets scour the seas for trade and resources, its navies have started working overtime to secure the lanes of commerce which ship its USD 4.5 trillion of foreign trade and vital energy imports.
The rising power’s leaders are also focusing on where possible to construct shortcuts to bring their precious cargos through overland routes, escaping the two strategic oceanic chokepoints of the straits of Malacca and Hormuz. Swedish journalist and strategic thinker Bertil Lintner, in his new book The Costliest Pearl, describes the new ‘Great Game’ playing out over the Indian Ocean, where China on the one hand and the US and India along with smaller powers such as France, Australia and Japan are moving their chess pieces one by one to gain or keep control over the vast ocean and its strategic sea lanes.
The title itself borrows from a US strategy paper written in 2005 by a military contractor, which described the potential Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean as a ‘String of Pearls’.
China’s interest in the port of Gwadar in Balochistan and in the port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar along with oil pipelines and roads from these ports to mainland China are as strategic as they can be. A casual look at the map of the Indian Ocean shows that the Straits of Hormuz, patrolled by the US, and the Straits of Malacca, straddled by India’s Andaman Islands which boasts of a new integrated command, are the natural choke points for the world’s and China’s oil supplies. China wants to reduce risks and costs run up by its oil tankers, by offloading Middle Eastern and African crude at Gwadar and piping it to Sinkiang. Similarly, crude from South East Asia could be piped out from the Arakanese port instead of being brought through the Straits of Malacca and then through the contested South China Seas.
However, these moves along with the construction of a string of ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Djibouti, Mauritius and Comoros, among other places, has naturally alarmed the two main powers who control the Indian Ocean—India and the US.
Lintner brings to light little known facets of history which go into the geopolitical play, such as the tale that the plan to set up an Andamans command flowed from a meeting between India’s then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao with US President Bill Clinton in 1995 and was finalised when Clinton visited India in 2000. As also the fact that Oman had offered Gwadar to India in the 1950s. With India turning down the offer, the Sultan of the small Gulf kingdom sold the strategic deep seaport to Pakistan for a mere USD 3 million!
A simple cheque book diplomacy has seen China gain a foothold in areas where since Zheng He, hardly any Chinese has ventured. The problem which Lintner and others foresee is not merely the threat from the Chinese-controlled ports but the way China constructs history.
Zheng’s voyages have been used by Chinese authorities to justify their claims over the Spratly Islands even though the mariner never landed on those islands. The detailed accounts and maps, which were compiled by Zheng’s aide Ma Huan, also list more than 700 places in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean including remote islands in the Andamans, Maldives and Lakshadweep which were either passed by or visited.
China’s investments in the String of Pearls, however, has not had smooth sailing. Myanmar is pushing back at Chinese investments in the corridor China wants to set up linking Yunan with the Arakanese port of Kyaukpyu. Chinese pipelines and workers have been attacked by militants in Balochistan. India is investing in a military-naval facility at Seychelles to checkmate China’s base in Djibouti.
However, as Lintner points out, many of the lands where China is investing in its Pearls “have long histories of political instability and exploitation by colonialists, pirates, mercenaries, fraudsters and tricksters, and, more recently in the case of the Maldives, threats posed by Islamic extremists.” This poses perhaps a greater risk to the Pearls than counter-measures being considered by India and the US.