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China's President Hu Jintao and Governor of Malacca Khalil Yakub

China’s President Hu Jintao and Governor of Malacca Khalil Yakub
Photo Reuters

President Hu Jintao back in 2003 started to mention the so called “Malacca Dilemma”, the fact that 80% of China energy needs will pass thorugh the waters of Malacca, without having any strategic influence over it1.

The Chinese leadership is quite aware that whoever will control the Strait will be able to choke the supply line of the People’s Republic. It is interesting to note that the notion of the Malacca Dilemma and the String of Pearls were born almost at the same time. The String of Pearls is much more famous, but is also more misleading. It aims to address the containment policy of China against India. If you reflect, China will never be able to evict India from the Indian Ocean. Moreover China is already a global superpower, while India is struggling to become a regional one. The only field in which they are competing directly is natural resources. But the String of Pearls won’t deny that to India. The truth is that the String of Pearls is a menace perceived by the US. Washington really could be excluded from the South East. So the Americans are pushing the Indians to think they are threatened by the Chinese.

In this puzzle, the role of a piece is growing in importance: Myanmar. Back in 2007, president Bush put its eyes on the humanitarian condition of Burmese people2. It is praiseworthy, especially from an administration that launched wars to appropriate natural resources of sovereign state, practised unlawful detentions, torture, extrajudiciary killings and so on. Myanmar is itself rich in natural resources and lies in a strategic position: just before the Malacca Strait. Much of the attention Myanmar received in recent years should be probably ascribed to this aspect, rather than the restless endeavour of the US for human rights.

Sri Lanka's President Rajapaksa and India's Prime Minister Singh

Sri Lanka’s President Rajapaksa and India’s Prime Minister Singh

The Tamil diaspora in Malaysia

Finally, with regards to Sri Lanka, it should be clear that there is no such a thing as India strangled by China. Beijing is securing its supply lane; Sri Lanka is part of this architecture. Nobody in New Delhi has been forced to do anything. What happened to the Tamils and the LTTE has nothing to do with the clash of global super powers. Sri Lankan deeds are a domestic affair for India and they have been treated as such. It is easier to blame the Chinese and because they consider this kind of debate as farcical, they don’t even defend themselves. But an accurate analysis of the geopolitical interests will show that Sri Lanka is under the patronage of India, with occasional and contingent flirtations with China, dictated by convenience rather than long term alliances.

The Malacca Strait is the place where the future rearrangement of the global balance of power will take place. India should start to look at its interest, rather than following the clue thrown by the Americans (though sometimes they could overlap in any case). And if the Tamil diaspora in Malaysia has any intention to influence the international scenario, should start to appreciate its strategic role in this context, rather than chasing the infinite intrigues of New Delhi politics.

1Chen Shaofeng, “China’s Self-Extrication from the “Malacca Dilemma” and Implications” International Journal of China Studies China’s Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2010, pp. 1-24

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Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met US foreign secretary HIllary Clinton.
Courtesy Reuters/Cameron

In the last two years Myanmar embarked on a series of reforms that promise to bring democracy and to open up the country. The Burmese people are in desperate need of involvement from the international community, but it is very likely that the first who will come in Myanmar will be the usual suspects. The country is blessed with natural resources, from oil to gems, not to mention its strategic position. In fact China already built port facilities for what the US called “the String of Pearls”. So it is very important to monitor the way investors are coming in Myanmar. In this article1 , civil society groups express their concern for the pace of development, too fast, with no attention for the humanitarian cost. Norway in particular is leading the way in funding peace-building in community affected area. The head of the Norwegian mission, Mr Petrie declared:

 

Charles Petrie, Head of MPSI in Myanmar.
Courtesy: UN Photo / JC McIlwaine

The real concern [of activists and civil society groups] is the fact that the political process hasn’t started or has not been developed sufficiently far enough… On the part of government officials, there does seem to be a commitment to dialogue, but I think that some of the groups want a clearer idea of how that is going to proceed,”

According to Petrie, MPSI’s aim is to provide immediate support for the tentative ceasefires through humantiarian relief as well as building trust between the government and ethnic minority communities through development projects. MPSI is funding projects in Rakhine, Chin, Shan and Mon states.2

Petrie criticized severely the government in 2007 and was expelled. His words are an important warning. And everybody should listen, including Norway. Indeed as recently as a couple of weeks ago, Norwegian prime minister Stoltenberg, vowed to strength cooperation about energy, hydropower, oil and gas, fishery and communication3. This angle of the news came from the Chinese agency Xinhua. Other sources are of course highlighting the Norwegian effort in building peace and easing the tension amongst minorities.4

Norway’s Prime Minister Stoltenberg visits Burma’s President Thein Sein.
Courtesy Myanmar Government

The lesson is that Norway is coming to Myanmar with a real concern for human rights and a real interest in the country’s natural resources. It is a good way to bring attention for the humanitarian aspect when dealing with economic development. You can call it best practices. Yet the Norwegian endeavour is far from being dispassionate. And we must remember this. Very often the West criticized action of other countries, in primis China, but they rarely debate the fact that we are talking of a competition, that the race for natural resources must be win. And one of your tool can be the humanitarian groups, but it is crucial to recognize that is a tool, for the real purpose of economic exploitation.

Petrie led the internal report on the UN action in Sri Lanka.
Courtesy: Sky News

Otherwise the objectivity of the debate becomes very questionable. It is worth to mention that Petrie issued a very critical internal report against the UN agency in Sri Lanka during the end of the civil war in 2009. The UN intervention in Sri Lanka was a massive failure, missing the very purpose of its presence, namely protecting civilians. So it is more than welcomed the internal review of such misconduct. Yet, the fact that Petrie was appointed to lead the committee raised some question about conflict of interests5. Especially if you consider the past involvement of Norway in the Sri Lankan peace process. If you advocate for the principles, then be careful to follow your own preaching.

The notion of the String of Pearls is an American hypothesis about China’s containment of India. All the facts indicate that China is building a network of harbour facilities from the Corn of Africa, the Persian Gulf up to the shores of Indo-China. These line of ports crosses the entire Indian Ocean so it wouldn’t be wise to deny the reality of these system of of harbours. And we can keep on calling it with the name of “String of Pearls”. But it is important to investigate the purpose of these facilities. In the American definition, it is an expansive military strategy to encircle India. It suggests that any move to consolidate the String or to add another Pearl, is an offensive step against India.

East-West Shipping Lane

It is well known that the primary goal of the String is to secure the energy supply of China. More than 80% of China’s imported fuel passes along that route. So it is an obvious strategy to establish a network of military facilities to safeguard such vital energy line. Especially if you consider the bottleneck of the Malacca Straits, where an American fleet is patrolling a very short sea passage. Very easily relatively few American naval forces could choke completely the import of energy. It is important to note also that in the future the percentage of energy import will grow significantly. The String system therefore is a defensive strategy against the USA.

Chinese harbour facilities in the Indian Ocean: the String of Pearls

The question now becomes: how India is affected by China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean? This of course is an important obstacle in the Indian aspirations of becoming a regional super-power, in the Indian Ocean in particular. The fact is that though India is surrounded by water, all its strategic interests are concentrated on the mainland. The crucial one is per definition the border with Pakistan. A secondary, but important issue is with China itself on the #Andra Pradesh. Minor reasons to exercise geopolitical power lie with Nepal, Burma and Bangladesh. All on land. The only strategically relevant issue on the sea is with Sri Lanka, but the proximity is so close, that you could consider it with the land group. A lot of attention has been grabbed by the Pearl in Hambatota, Sri Lanka. Although there is no doubt that this facility will serve the Chinese maritime presence when it will be needed, it is also foolish to think that China will count on that stronghold to obstacle India in case of a confrontation. Sri Lanka is a domestic issue for India and any military escalation will see New Delhi overwhelms Colombo and any other country on its side.

The fact is that the Indian presence in the Indian Ocean is so firm that it will never really be excluded. Of course the Chinese presence can shadow all the imperialistic aspirations of New Delhi in the region, and yet, besides prestige, it is difficult if not impossible to worry the Indian presence in its own waters.

The real reason is that the USA suffer even more distance that China from the Indian Ocean and the String of Pearls is seriously menacing the American presence. Washington is heavily worried by being cut off from the region. So we can consider the String of Pearls almost entirely an anti-American defensive strategy.

We can conclude with a last reflection: if it is a China-American issue, what is the involvement of India? In the first place, the USA are uncomfortable in admitting their worries about their own containment; second they want to co-opt India on their side and convice New Delhi that they share values, goals and most of all, enemies. What is more surprising is that Beijing didn’t do much to change this perception. I suggest that China prefers to pretend of having a fictional confrontation with India, than to admit the real friction with the USA. The battle with supremacy with the USA is global and it has the potential to be nasty and dangerous, especially for the economic well-being of the Chinese people, given the mutual business relations. A confrontation with India can always be reconsider under the historical issues. And even a open, circumstanced war-fare will have very limited consequences. So for the Chinese interests is better to talk fictionally of the India’s containment, rather that facing the real rivalry with the USA.

It is possible that in the future the positions will change, that India’s strategic relevance will grow up to become a real competitors for Chinese supremacy. I suspect that even in this case it will be more a land-based confrontation rather than a naval one.

As a final remark I have to admit the appealing of the theory of the String of Pearls: a concept concisely expressed in an image, whose representation power seems to be self-explaining. It is a fortunate, well-thought artefact of geopolitical propaganda. My impression that is even too good to be real. But sometimes art not only precedes life, it can also lead it.

In an interview with Cnn-Ibn live on the 11th of November 2011, president Rajapaksa was asked about his concessions to China. The assumption was that Sri Lanka increasingly lent towards China. How do you explain all the interest of Beijing for Colombo? From the Hambantota harbour to the South Express Highway, a lot of Chinese money is pouring on the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. 

So the question from an Indian perspective is: aren’t all these moves alienating your natural alignment with India?

Promptly president Rajapaksa clarified that:

Everything given to China, was offered before to India”.

Considering the dexterity of the president with media, he staged the interview precisely to dispel any thought regarding his alliance with China.

What he said is credible but you must read within the lines.

courtesy Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

The question deals with the following: Sri Lanka moved considerably towards China. It became one of String of Pearls, maybe one the most important. When it needed the most money and arms, Beijing stepped in. USA and also India were quite reluctant to help Colombo in amassing enough resources to smash the LTTE. The aim was to beat the Tigers only by a narrow margin.

 China instead gave everything requested. It boosted the Sri Lankan war machine to build a considerable edge on the LTTE.

Finally China backed Sri Lanka up internationally. With the precious vote of Beijing in the UN security council, Colombo is virtually unassailable. Sure you can be questioned.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
courtesy Mustafa Quraishi/AP

In March 2012 the UN gently asked the implementation of the LRCC, the internal report of the government about the alleged crime. In practical terms, the UN invited Colombo to comply at least with the extra mild recommendations internally promoted by the government itself. In case the top office is involved, not many chances of self-incrimination, I suppose. Any other, more tough move is automatically rejected by the Chinese support. In this climate, nobody will challenge a direct confrontation, when much more urgent issues are on the table. So for Sri Lanka this equals to immunity. Now, if you were India, wouldn’t this concern you? A State that you consider a domestic province is rapidly joining your biggest competitor in your main areas of influence.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa meeting Chinese President Hu Jintao.
courtesy Sudath Silva

The reaction of Rajapaksa is clear: complete reassurance. But you need to listen carefully. In an interview in June 2009 on the programme Walk the Talk (Indian channel NDTV), Rajapakse announced that the Chinese presence wasn’t harmful. He swore that any agreement was done for the benefit of Sri Lanka. No Sri Lankan bases can be used against Sri Lanka. That’s good enough, for Colombo. But if you are reassuring New Delhi, this doesn’t sound so good.

Rajapaksa is clearly playing a risky game with both. So you need to pay extra attention when he’s launching his messages. When he mentioned the offers to India, he’s reminding his counterparts that he’s playing according to the major rule of obedience. India comes first. Always. Only when India ignores Sri Lanka, he will turn to China. It’s important to remember this in the framework of the balance of power in the Indian Ocean.

East West Shipping lane. Any goods moved from Europe, Middle East and Africa to South East and to Far East Asia, pass on this lane.

Sri Lanka lies few miles away from the busiest shipping lane of the world: the East-West route. All the maritime transport of goods from Europe, Middle East and Africa towards Asia, pass through that lane. The strategic valued of Sri Lanka cannot possibly be overstated. 70% of China oil supply from Middle East and Africa, travels through that lane (see Christopher J. Pehrson,2006 String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power Across the Asian Littoral, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies. Institute). To protect this vital artery, China developed what has been dubbed the “String of Pearls”, a series of strategic ports to secure this line in Pakistan, Maldives, Myanmar, Cambodia and Sri Lanka (see ibidem).

Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean

Any of these pearl has its own value. In Pakistan for example the Gwadar is connecting the Xinjiang region with the Indian Ocean. It is only 240 miles distant from the Strait of Hormuz . Myanmar has its own gas reserve to be exploited and refined. But Sri Lanka case is peculiar.
It’s on very the route of the East-West Shipping lane. And it is only 20 miles from India.

courtesy Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

Chinese premier Hu Jintao affirmed that the Indian Ocean will become an example of “harmonious ocean”. The argument goes that you don’t need to fear the Chinese naval expansion. Clearly the first reaction is that probably Chinese are in the business of re-semantization. Harmonious here sounds to much as hegemonic. But Mr Hu Jintao is building also at home an harnonious society…Probably the source of misunderstanding is that Beijing wants in good faith establish a new order. But it is not ready to negotiate it. The suspicion comes only from the fact that Beijing expect everyone to gladly accept its plans. They are probably good plans, but without discussion, the harmony looks pretty much imposed.

The String of Pearls theory started in 2005. In that year aid from China jumped from few handful of millions to a staggering $ 1 billion in 2005. In 2011 more than $ 3.7 billion have been allocated for the project. The construction of the port was launched in January 20087.
China bankrolled the project, but also heavily supported the government in its war against the LTTE. Not only Beijing sold military technology desperately needed by Colombo, in order to build an edge against the guerrilla of the Tigers. China also backed institutionally Sri Lanka in front of the United Nations. Essentially with its vote in the security council guaranteed to Colombo impunity for any possible misconduct committed during the war.

Few doubt that Colombo is a pearl for China; the question is: why India was so happy to underwrite the same strategy that is tightening the string in its own sphere of influence?

Sri Lanka must have very good arguments.

 

courtesy EPA

The LTTE and Sri Lankan Government mimicked each other’s conduct and reached an equilibrium that could have prolonged the years of bloodshed. A radical change was necessary to break the cycle of blow for blow retaliations and the first catalyst emanated from international waters.

East-West Shipping lane route

China.  The sudden resurgence of such a giant superpower revolutionized the geopolitical axis and reshaped the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka lies just five miles off the East-West Shipping Lane; a maritime corridor used by ships as the major trade and transportation route from South-East Asia and the Far-East to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  80% of the oil imported by China is conveyed along this shipping lane, and it expected that China will increasingly rely on such importations to fuel its growing energy demands in the future.  As such, the importance of Beijing securing a firm sphere of influence on the tiny island of Sri Lanka can’t be understated.

Chinese Port in the Indian Ocean- The so called ‘String of Pearls’

U.S. observers identified the expansion strategy of China along the shipping lane, as it built ports and facilities to safeguard its future energy supply. The amassed harbours have been christened as the ‘String of Pearls’; from Pakistan to the Maldives, Seychelles, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, China is effectively practicing a containment policy against India.  India was shaken by the success of the Sri Lankan-Chinese talks.  Sri Lanka is just a stone’s throw away from the mainland and India had always assumed its neighbour to be a firm ally.  New Delhi counterbalanced the action by starting to court Vietnam and their resources in the South China Sea, deeply angering Beijing.

courtesy Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation

Even in the face of betrayal, India remained a supporter of Rajapakse. It seems that China and India may not be playing as rivals, but rather as partners. Western commentators can only perceive the competition between the two giants, but it is more likely that the common interests shared by the Elephant and the Dragon will overshadow their minor frictions.

Indeed, many questions remain unanswered about the direction that India now wants to take in its role as the regional superpower, but you may find the answer if you look closely enough at the reflections from the broken shards of glass.