String of Pearls, or Straits of Oil?

Dr. Sinha M. A. Sayeed
Thursday, March 5th, 2015

The swing from Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy dictum to XI Jinping’s in 2014 is indeed a great turning point in the foreign policy of China since former adhered to the principle ‘“hide its strength and bide its time” (taoguang yanghui) — Deng’s low-key approach to foreign affairs– while the latter started sticking to the avowed principle ‘China should be “proactive” (fenfa you wei). This is the equivalent of China moving from first gear into second; and like second gear, the pace of this new foreign policy can sometimes be jagged. Such dominant departure and arrival of China at the bilateral, regional and international areas bears further importance as, in the words of US policymakers including President Barack Obama, 21st century shall be the ‘Asian century’.


China is now the world’s number 1 economic power and she is also taking note of the politics and diplomacy in and around UN and the world paying due attention to all the necessary bodies and associations. Chinese defence and foreign policies are at present more proactive, visionary and realistic with her long-cherished China Dream (tianxia), “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”  This is on record that China’s naval power is in second position in the globe and her recent play in the South Sea is an analytic message to those who desire to dominate in the Asia-Pacific zone. This very mounting naval power is a big concern for US, Japan and India. China further has demonstrated her excellence in building deep sea ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and she is, at the request of Bangladesh, planning so in Bangladesh’s Sonadia Island(a small island of area 9 km2 off the Cox’s Bazaar coast in Chittagong Division, Bangladesh). Taking all these into serious account, western and eastern powers got alert termed such ventures as ‘China’s String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean. This article is a sincere attempt to understand what the phrase ‘String of Pearls’ implies really.


The String of Pearls—the term as a geopolitical concept was first used in an internal United States Department of Defense report titled “Energy Futures in Asia’’—refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication, which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan. The sea lines run through several major maritime choke points such as the Strait of Mandeb, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the Lombok Strait, as well as other strategic maritime centers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Somalia. Interesting enough, this very term (String of Pearls) has never been used by official Chinese government sources, but is often used in the Indian media. And from realistic standpoints, for clearer understanding and digestion a focus on the straits is an unavoidable compulsion.


The Bab-el-Mandeb is a strait located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti, north of Somalia in the Horn of Africa, and connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. It is sometimes called the Mandab Strait in English. With the building of the Suez Canal, the strait assumed great strategic and economic importance, forming a portion of the link between the Mediterranean Sea and East Asia. Bab el-Mandab acts as a strategic link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. An estimated 3.3 million barrels (520,000 m³) of oil pass through the strait per day, out of a world total of about 43 million barrels per day (6,800,000 m³/d) moved by tankers.


The Strait of Malacca connects the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) and the South China Sea (Pacific Ocean). It runs between the Indonesian island of Sumatra to the west and peninsular (West) Malaysia and extreme southern Thailand to the east and has an area of about 25,000 square miles (65,000 square km). The strait is 500 miles (800 km) long and is funnel-shaped, with a width of only 40 miles (65 km) in the south that broadens northward to some 155 miles (250 km) between We Island off Sumatra and the Isthmus of Kra on the mainland.


The Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea and has been the focus of potential conflict between competing regional and international powers. It represents one of the nine major water chokepoints in the world, being only 50km wide at its shortest point. For this reason it is of great strategic importance, as it is the only sea route where oil from Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, as well as most of the United Arab Emirates can be transported from. Much of this oil is transported to Japan, Western Europe, and the United States who have a vital interest in securing free passage through this strait. The anti-western regimes of Iran and Iraq oppose the United States presence within the Persian Gulf and the security support that the US provides for many of the Gulf States. If war were to break out in this region, oil would certainly be used as a weapon, and the environmental consequences could be disastrous. There would be serious threats to local water supplies, marine life, and the economies of these nations. Containing conflict within this vital area has been a goal of all of the actors involved, and so far they have been successful in avoiding a major incident.


The Lombok Strait connects the Java Sea to the Indian Ocean, and is located between the islands of Bali and Lombok in Indonesia. The Gill Islands are on the Lombok side. Its narrowest point is at its southern opening, with a width of about 20 km between the islands of Lombok and Nusa Penida, in the middle of the strait. At the northern opening, it is 40 km across. Its total length is about 60 km. Because it is 250 m deep — much deeper than the Strait of Malacca — ships that draw too much water to pass through Malacca (so-called “post Malaccamax” vessels) often use the Lombok Strait, instead. The Lombok Strait is notable as one of the main passages for the Indonesian Throughflow that exchanges water between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.


The meaningful appearance of the String of Pearls is indicative of China’s growing geopolitical influence through concerted efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, expand and modernize military forces, and foster and enhance stronger diplomatic relationships with trading partners. The Chinese government goes on insisting that China’s up-and-coming naval strategy is exclusively peaceful in nature and planned solely for the protection of regional trade interests. Such far-reaching vision and mission along with necessary strategies, military or otherwise, are inherently subject to reform and reset under the circumstances, approving or not. A deep but cautious study by The Economist also sensed and detected the Chinese moves to be commercial in nature. Although it has been claimed that China’s actions are creating a security dilemma between China and India in the Indian Ocean, this has been questioned by a number of analysts who instead point to China’s fundamental strategic vulnerabilities.


[Dr. Sinha M. A. Sayeed, Chairman of Leadership Studies Foundation, member of International Political Science Association, writer and columnist at]

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