String of Win-Win: Why Chinese Rise Would Not Lead to a Conflict

In its report titled “Energy Futures in Asia” in 2004 to the then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Booz Allen Hamilton (an American consultancy firm) coined the phrase ‘String of Pearls’. This phrase was meant to suggest a global Chinese plan to secure strategic sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. The ‘String of Pearls’ has thereafter been accepted by majority of analysts without a question. Genesis of this phrase lies in the suspicion over Chinese investment in several Indian Ocean ports. The emergence of this phrase rests on two premises: Chinese quest for a strategic alternative to Malacca Dilemma and Chinese plan of containment of India. In 2003, the former Chinese President Hu Jintao coined the term ‘Malacca Dilemma’, yet he contended that China needed alternate routes to ensure its shipping remained safe from piracy threats which abound the Malacca Strait. Proponents of ‘String of Pearls’ believe that through this approach, China wants to become a great sea power challenging the long-held predominance of the U.S. in the Indian Ocean. On the contrary, since its first use in 2004, ‘String of Pearls’ has not led to any significant Chinese military bases development in any of the so called ‘pearls’ in the Indian Ocean, save Djibouti. Li Weijian, professor at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, claims that “the facilities in Djibouti serve to protect China’s economic interests in Africa and to help safeguard regional peace.” Ali Elmi Ahmed, the CEO of Djibouti’s premier construction material companies argues that “China can bring a lot to Djibouti, by enabling it to meet the growing demand of our neighbor Ethiopia, and other countries in the region without access to sea.”


In the South Asia region, with a trade volume of USD 71 billion between China and India, Beijing might not see containment of India (as has been popularized through String of Pearls) as an effective tool vis-à-vis business. On the other hand, the U.S. has described India as a ‘regional anchor’ in its ‘Defense Strategic Guidance’ of 2012. This term is reflective of the American inclination to outsource the security and ‘regional management’ of the larger Northern Indian Ocean to India, while it takes care of China in the South China Sea. Furthermore, there has been considerable debate over Hambantota Port, which the Chinese have leased for 99 years at 70% stakes. Panos Mourdoukoutas, writing in Forbes, predicts that Hambantota will make Sri Lanka a Chinese “semi colony”, and points out a similar fate might wait for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as well. On the contrary, Chinese investment in these ‘pearls’ did start an economic reaction; the intensity, speed and quantum of which rest upon the government of the country where the ‘pearl’ is located. If the government is corrupt, inept and suffers from a poverty of vision, then blaming only the Chinese investment for fate of collaborative projects such as Hambantota is farcically misplaced. Chinese plans to establish military bases in ‘pearls’ are not yet clear or visible as was the case with the U.S. establishment of overseas military bastions during the Cold War. It may be assumed that majority of these ‘pearls’ are not going to witness the Chinese naval ships, because the Chinese strategic direction is of non-confrontational economic connectivity, as opposed to commonly held misgiving among the Western security analysts about Chinese strategy of expansion and widening its influence.


Speaking of CPEC, China is the only country that has invested over $50 billion in Pakistan as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) for projects related to infrastructure development. There hasn’t been any other Western country which has invested so enormously in Pakistan to help alleviate the latter’s economic strain. The CPEC is being regarded by the Government of Pakistan as an initiative for regional connectivity. Some people have labeled it as a game changer and a watershed event in Pakistan’s history. Whatever might be the semantics over the CPEC, it surely is a new lease of life for Pakistan’s dwindling economy. CPEC, according to South Asian investors, will add nearly 7.5 percent to Pakistan’s GDP. One may note that Gwadar remained in the backyard of Pakistani development plans, but with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) it came into strategic limelight. Gwadar, which is at the heart of CPEC, is on its way to becoming a regional transshipment port, connecting the Central Asian States with the rest of the world. It requires dispelling another misconstrued notion that ‘Gwadar is only meant to connect with Xinjiang’; whereas, China, on many occasions called on regional countries like Iran and Afghanistan to be part of CPEC. China wants to revive the historical ‘Silk Route’ through Gwadar-Kashgar link; Pakistan wants to revive its economy, and CPEC assures them both the fulfillment of their objectives. This exactly is China’s officially declared and accepted policy, i.e., ‘win-win’.


Even a novice of the Chinese history would conclude that Chinese economic progress thrives on non-confrontation as opposed to the U.S. whose economy thrives on war and conflict. A reader in recent global history would note that from the post-1914 period, the American economy grew steadily. On one hand, the world witnessed tremendous violence and on the other, the American economy saw exponential growth. Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has been directly responsible for: the Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam War (1955-1975), Grenada Invasion (1983), First Gulf War (1990-1991), Afghan War (2001-to date), Second Gulf War (2003-2005), Libyan war (2011-to date), and Syrian war (2011-to date). The U.S. indirectly supported the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989), Saddam Hussein during Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Israel during the Arab-Israel wars (1956, 1967 & 1973) and Israel in the Lebanon war (1982 & 2006). This short recapture of the history of blood and death would be enough to suggest how the Western analysts conveniently put the violence behind while arguing for the Chinese eco-military growth as diabolical or entropic. As Trump forges his agenda through the somewhat aggressive dictum of ‘make America great again’, the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, used the phrase “the great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation and Xi Jinping vowed to steer clear of what the Harvard professor Graham Allison called the ‘Thucydides Trap’. Thucydides Trap, in Allison’s words, “describes the dangers of a period in which an established great power is challenged by a rising power”. Xi’s use of the Allison’s term clearly means China does not want its rise to directly result into a conflict with the ‘established great power’– the United States.


China might never have any plans for military bases at Gwadar, or for that matter any of its ‘pearls’. Those who believe in such an outlandish claim of ‘Chinese military bases’, profoundly form their arguments on imprudence, suspicion and Eastern cultural misreading. Imprudence – because once a country is making such comfortable economic progress in the 21st century, why would or should it antagonize its neighbors or other states in the region or even beyond by establishing ‘bases’. Basing was a Cold War thesis, which is outdated and irrelevant in this century. Suspicion – because most of the Western theorists and geopolitical experts predicate their thoughts on ‘doubt’ and question the things which at times they cannot even observe. Believing that China will use ‘String of Pearls’ to expand its geopolitical influence through military footprint, without providing any concrete evidence reflects reductio ad absurdum. There are some, who are quick to repudiate Chinese ‘win-win’ theorem, by pointing out the South China Sea situation. Chinese Military strategy of May 26, 2015 clearly highlights the policy of “active defence”, which means China will not ‘wait to’ defend itself but will ‘seek to’ solidify its defence. Such expressions are not uncommon or unique only to China, but there are documents and military strategy papers replete with similar phrases. Chinese development of artificial island might appear ‘aggressive’ but has been accepted by the regional countries for one clear reason – it doesn’t violate anyone’s strategic or economic interests. It would be true to assert that countries around the Spratly and Paracel Islands could be ready, or even willing, to embrace the Chinese presence because it signals better security and better economic prospects than the U.S. presence.


Gideon Rachman, in his book ‘Easternization: War and Peace in the Asian Century’, strongly argues that the rise of China to the global preeminence is inevitable. Forces, dynamics and the drivers which once made the American rise possible, are fading fast; some of which have already gone, especially the emergence of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a replacement of World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF). America stood as a spectator as Russia invaded Georgia and annexed Crimea. Similarly, Rachman maintains that, “the European powers are in precipitous decline as global political players”, and are becoming a burden that the U.S. cannot afford to drag along. The leverage that the U.S. took from Europe is swiftly diminishing. The third element of Western analysts’ outlandish claims is the ‘Eastern cultural misreading’ and this is one of the hardest aspects to understand that the Western elite wrestle with. In the East, a bond between two people is formed, solidified and cherished with sentiments, emotions and sacrifices. This is even truer for the inter-state relations. This bond is always based on ‘trust’ and not on ‘interest’. This Eastern uniqueness remains elusive in the West, which only understands the logic of gains and returns in ‘one’s favour’. The West primarily grew its intellectual superiority on ‘win-lose’ condition which basically means that for the rise of one, the other has to be defeated or it has to go down. In the Western thought, the ‘global order’ is only natural, if and only if, for one power there is anti-power, for one idea there is an anti-idea. When China speaks of ‘win-win’, it seems way too incomprehensible for the West.


America is mostly seen in the East as an unreliable, self-centered and insincere player that can abandon anyone at anytime without giving reasons. This American way of engagement has created visible lack of trust between the U.S. and many countries around the world. The time for such a twentieth-century approach may be over and that’s what would cost America many friends and partners. Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her book ‘The Chessboard and the Web’, opines that in the new age a new kind of ‘game’ (or for that matter warfare) is emerging. She believes that there exists a global web of networks where ‘games’ are played not through bargaining but by building connections and relationships. In swiftly transforming global settings, the power and politics will not be played through traditional interstate relations but through networks and connections. In the ‘networked’ world, one can fight an adversary only by remaining in the web and not being isolated. G. John Ikenberry believes that Slaughter’s work “represents an important watershed in thinking about power and interdependence in the contemporary world”. This is what the Chinese grand strategic direction has been to outreach to the world through greater connectivity (resulting in ‘win-win situation’) – which is not the ‘American way’ that relies on power politics and coercion through overwhelming military prowess. This is the war one can deduce from Slaughter’s book, which America is not equipped to fight. Chinese visible philosophy of good for all, by creating ‘win-win’ situations, defeats the pathological view of ‘String of Pearls’.


During the 2000s, American security expert, Andrew Marshall, popularized the idea of ‘Anti-Access/Area Denial’ or commonly referred to as A2/AD primarily focused on China’s military capability. They argued that China was developing military capabilities to keep the American maritime ingress into the South China Sea at bay. Americans believed China had installed anti-ship ballistic missiles to target the U.S. navy aircraft carriers. This led the U.S. Navy to propose a new operational strategy ‘Distributed Lethality’ to deploy its ships to counter Chinese A2/AD with a powerful response mechanics. Nonetheless, U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson abandoned the use of A2/AD acronym in 2016. Richardson contended that clarity and precision in military thinking necessitated deconstructing of A2/AD, which could “mean all things to all people or anything to anyone”. It can be reasoned corollary that the idea of ‘String of Pearls’, like ‘A2/AD’, will see the end of its day in a not too distant future.


The writer is Islamabad-based independent researcher and tweets at @sohailazmie.

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