For years, there has been concern about the “string of pearls,” China’s range of investments in port facilities in nations along the Indian Ocean littoral. Gwadar, Pakistan; Chittagong, Bangladesh; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; the Maldives; and Seychelles have all seen a growth in such Chinese investments over the past decade.
Although much of this has been portrayed as an effort at encircling, even isolating India, the reality is that these are largely commercial investments and infrastructure development programs. To become military bases, these investments would require a far larger, more overt military presence, including access treaties with the host countries, hardening of the facilities to withstand possible attack and most likely the presence of units of the People’s Liberation Army.
The “string of pearls” does not present a direct threat to Indian security, but it does reflect China’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean region. That interest is now gaining a greater military dimension. Part of this is reflected by China’s growing assertiveness on India’s land border with China in recent years.
In 2013, PLA forces repeatedly entered Indian-controlled areas. In April 2013, a platoon of about 40 Chinese troops drove and marched some 19 kilometers into the Depsang area of northern Ladakh, India, pitched tents, and stayed there for nearly two weeks. In June 2013, another Chinese contingent entered the Chumar region of eastern Ladakh, India, destroying surveillance cameras in the area, while an Indian patrol intercepted yet another Chinese platoon the next month. In December 2013, Chinese forces arrested Indian porters in the Chumar region, who were apparently helping to resupply Indian outposts there.
The Chumar region, one of the few areas where the Indian infrastructure is comparable to the Chinese, and where Indian forces can see into China, is once again a source of tension. In September 2014, Chinese forces, this time in battalion strength (approximately 1,000 troops), entered the region on the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to China, pitching tents as though for a protracted stay. The Chinese incursion cast a pall over the visit, overshadowing some 12 trade agreements promoting some $20 billion in trade.
Another illustration of Chinese interest that hits much closer to the string of pearls theory is China’s growing military presence in the Indian Ocean itself. Just as tensions were rising on India’s land border with China, a Chinese submarine docked in Sri Lanka. This was the first time a Chinese submarine had officially docked in an Indian Ocean port. It follows one of the first Chinese nuclear-powered submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean, which took place earlier this year. These patrols would seem to herald a significant expansion in the operating areas of the PLA navy.
Most striking, however, was the report that the Chinese submarine visit to Sri Lanka included a submarine tender as well. These vessels are designed to support submarines by providing them with fuel, extra food, repair parts and, if necessary, additional weapons. Deploying a submarine tender allows boats to extend their patrols significantly. If the PRC were to deploy a submarine tender on a longer term basis to the Indian Ocean, this would constitute a major step towards converting the “string of pearls” to a more military end.
So while China may not be exactly encircling India, Beijing is physically and psychologically pressuring New Delhi.