India’s Necklace of Diamonds Vs. China’s String of Pearls
Does any strategy by India to counter China work? This question arises when one sees the efforts of India to create maritime bases to counter the encirclement plan of China in the Indian Ocean. The answer is straightforward – no. Because China, as compared to India, is far ahead in its strategies through the creation of infrastructure facilities.
Then why is India focusing on the “Necklace of Diamonds” strategy? India has used a variety of strategies to send a strong message to its adversary, China, not to assert its geopolitical dominance in the South Asia region. The effort to create the Necklace of Diamonds is one such effort. Definitely, by any stretch of the imagination, it is not a reply to the mammoth effort by China to increase its sway over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by creating ports in selected countries.
Under China’s String of Pearls, the network extends from the Chinese Mainland to Port Sudan, Africa. It includes container facilities in Chittagong, Bangladesh; Karachi and Gwadar ports in Pakistan; and Colombo and Hambantota ports in Sri Lanka. While China has not given any name to its clever way of expanding its hold over the IOR, the String of Pearls is a geopolitical hypothesis proposed by political researchers in the US. It refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities created along the sea.
In simple terms, it is the creation of a ring around India. As China has no openings in the Indian Ocean, it is trying to corner India by developing ports at vantage points in countries around the sea.
Through the “Necklace of Diamonds” strategy, a phrase first heard in 2011, India has also begun its networking along the sea by encompassing Changi naval base in Singapore, the Assumption Islands in Seychelles, Chabahar Port in Iran, Sabang Port in Indonesia, and Duqm Port in Oman. India has not only continued its efforts to gain direct access to naval bases, but has also developed new naval bases and built infrastructure at existing bases. India has made efforts to improve its relationship with Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam, and other Central Asian countries. The encirclement policy, or enhancing diplomatic ties with the above countries, began after 2015.
China has been investing heavily in expanding activities under the String of Pearls plans. It has been reported that the Chinese-funded commercial shipping centre in Hambantota and a deep-water port near the mouth of the Persian Gulf in Gwadar have seen large-scale investment under the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The largest investment made by India is in the Chabahar port. It signed an agreement with Iran in 2016 to invest $8 billion in the port and industries in the Chabahar Free Trade Economic Zone. India is installing 10 Coastal Radar Systems (CRS) in the Maldives to monitor ship movements in the IOR. Similarly, a half-dozen CRS have been erected in Sri Lanka and eight in Mauritius.
One of the smartest moves by India is to strategically invest in the Sabang port in Indonesia. The IOR witnesses nearly 60% of the trade, mainly oil from the Middle East. China imports at least 80% of its oil through the Strait of Malacca. Sabang is 710 km from the Andaman Islands and nearly 500 km from the entrance of the Malacca Strait. In 2018, Indonesia agreed with India to give economic and military access to Sabang. 40% of India’s trade passes through the Malacca Strait. The Indian navy gaining access to the Sabang port is a choking point for China. This is one major reason for China’s efforts to become an ally of Singapore and Malaysia, which surround the Malacca Strait. China’s hold on this crucial sea passage is a headache to New Delhi because New Delhi in 1971 threatened to block it for China as it had contemplated helping Pakistan in the 1971 war against India.
However, China’s plus point is its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) program, under which road infrastructure is being improved on a large scale. This is not just to create a conducive environment for trade growth but also to help the military extend its tentacles toward the border areas of India and China. India cannot remain in peace if Pakistan becomes one of the bases for the Chinese naval force.
Under the String of Pearls, China has developed its presence in Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port, located in the Bay of Bengal. Beijing reportedly has a military base in the Coco Islands, which is close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. When it comes to Bangladesh, China has established the port of Chittagong in the Bay of Bengal. The Rajapakshe government had allowed China to develop a Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. But after the ouster of Rajapakshe as President, Sri Lanka did not entertain China’s use of its soil for storing nuclear weapons. But the present economic collapse of Sri Lanka is so bad that it is not in a position to reject any help from any source.
China’s infamous debt-trap diplomacy outsmarts other countries’ plans to have friendly neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing has made it its business to offer huge cheap loans to build infrastructure, mainly ports and roads, in economically weaker countries like Pakistan. It is also lending Chinese companies’ technical know-how to these countries in order for them to be perpetually indebted. by giving cheap loans to countries like Africa, is getting a hold of natural resources. In other words, Beijing is making many countries into its slaves. Either it is marketing cheap products to the West or dragging weaker countries into its debt trap.
While the rest of the world is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic tsunami, China is expanding its geographical footprint and trade at breakneck speed. Its debt diplomacy has come in handy. After all, its share in the global market for commercial services was 17% in 2018. It is topping the list of 10 countries that export the most goods and services, as per the World Bank report of 2020. And, India does not figure in the list of the top 10.
If the situation arises for India to take on China head-on, will it get support from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, or any other country? In all probability, India will have to fight alone. The Ukraine war is the best example to show how advanced countries turn helpless in a conflict situation. No Western country can dictate terms to China because they depend on China for trade and commerce. India can be doubtful over even getting help from even Russia, to which it has given huge business by purchasing arms and aircraft. After all, China has now become Russia’s principal friend economically and diplomatically against the West.
China has pushed India to set aside more and more funds for the defence sector. Building ports, strengthening Coastal Surveillance Radar to track Chinese arms-carrying ships and submarines, investing in airports in neighbouring nations, and constantly engaging in talks with the countries in Southeast Asia have become inevitable for India. Positioning a string of warships along the coast is essential. It is inevitable for India to focus more on its “Look East” /”Act East” policy. At the same time, it has to continue its engagement with the US to keep China on its toes.
Only enhanced diplomatic ties with the neighbouring countries by India would help it keep China under control. In addition, India’s aggression, as displayed in the Galwan conflict, should continue. India should move closer to South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan, among other countries, to checkmate China.
[The author is a Aerospace & Defence Analyst and Director, ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd (An Indo-German Company), Bangalore]