Until a few years ago, the town of Gwadar in Pakistan, that’s inhabited by some 40,000 fisherfolk, was tucked away from the global spotlight. Surrounded by mountains, desert and the Arabian sea, this little town is now the centrepiece of one of the most controversial infrastructure projects on earth – China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The town of Gwadar has undergone a flurry of changes on the development front that includes a brand-new container terminal, new resorts, and a 2900 km long highway and railway line to connect this Pakistani seaport to China’s landlocked regions. With Gwadar, China is planning to transform this otherwise desolate town into a new Dubai, an ambitious objective that may not sit well with India, or many other countries of the world for that matter.
That said, the Belt and Road project is just a start. It’s a project that won’t have much impact if China fails to control the Indian ocean, both commercially and militarily. And that’s exactly what they are trying to pull off by gaining ownership of shipping ports located at strategic points across the Indian ocean, popularly known as ‘The String of Pearls.’
A little backstory
It’s old news that China aspires to be the world’s largest commercial empire. The Belt and Road initiative and the String of Pearls are just the tools to achieve that and more. China has already spent billions and plans to spend a few trillion more in the near future. Now it’s typical of you to wonder how China can afford to execute a project of this magnitude in the first place. Let me explain.
As of 2018, 92 countries around the world considered China as their trade partner (import and export combined). This is a big number compared to India’s 21. What’s more shocking is the speed at which China made all these alliances possible. China was the world’s largest recipient of World Bank and Asian Development Bank loans in the 80s and 90s, and by the turn of the century, China alone handed out more loans to developing countries than the World Bank.
This is popularly known as the ‘Debt Trap Policy,’ and is eerily similar to the tactics used by the erstwhile colonial powers.
Unlike other countries, China uses aid, commerce and FDIs (Foreign Direct Investments) to increase goodwill, expand its influence and acquire natural resources it needs to develop. The Belt and Road initiative and the String of Pearls are examples of this strategy. Through these umbrella projects, China aims to build a spidery web of infrastructure across Asia, and through similar initiatives, around the world – mostly in Africa and Eastern Europe. And a bulk of this project is financed by the loans China receives from global banks. State-owned corporations in China are also encouraged to invest in these projects.
In order to further its expansionist agenda, China pumps billions in the form of loans at cheap rates to developing countries, mostly to fund large infrastructure projects. Smaller countries get easily lured by China’s lucrative loans, which also come with more Chinese investments. In case these smaller countries are unable to repay the loan, China then starts demanding concessions or other advantages in exchange for debt relief. This is popularly known as the ‘Debt Trap Policy,’ and is eerily similar to the tactics used by the erstwhile colonial powers.
A String of Pearls to choke India
Giving shape to the String of Pearls might be China’s biggest infrastructure plan in history with equally big geopolitical ramifications. So, why is China spending such huge sums of money on its neighbours? The only reason is: access. The String of Pearls is a geopolitical theory related to potential Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean region. These ‘pearls’ are basically ‘choke points’ that represent specific ports in the Indian Ocean. Connecting these ports would create a chain of hubs that may serve as commercial or military outposts for the Chinese armed forces.
This coupled with China’s naval expansion and modernisation, one can easily understand their complex and multi-layered strategy for maritime and economic supremacy.
Although Beijing brushes off these accusations by calling their actions entirely driven by commercial interests, for close observers it is impossible to miss the existence of a systematic and deliberate chain of actions that stretch far beyond their ‘visibly harmless’ intentions. From North Korea to Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and 11 other African countries where China operates seaports, Beijing invests enormous amounts of resources. This happens through investments or direct control of key ports, airports, or other infrastructure. A bit of political and diplomatic coercion helps too. This coupled with China’s naval expansion and modernisation, one can easily understand their complex and multi-layered strategy for maritime and economic supremacy.
In case you were wondering, here are the names of ports that are controlled by China across the Indian ocean:
Pakistan – Gwadar
Djibouti – Djibouti
Kenya – Lamu and Mombasa
Sri Lanka – Hambantota
Myanmar – Coco Islands and Kyaukpyu
Bangladesh – Chittagong
Cambodia – Dara Sokor and Ream
China – Woody Island, Sanya and Hong Kong
Maldives – Marao
India remains wary of China’s activities in the Indian Ocean region, especially of the so-called ‘String of Pearls’. To balance this threat, India is also establishing ports in these above-mentioned countries and at the same time helping local governments ward off Chinese interests. Case in point, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives.
Keeping all their options open
China is over-dependent on its eastern seaboard and the narrow (and under conflict) Malacca Strait to get its goods in and out of the country. To put that into perspective, more than 80% of crude oil that is consumed by China reaches the country though this strait. And in case of an all-out conflict, all it takes for an enemy is to block some of these vital shipping lanes to China, and in a matter of time, the country will be on its knees.
A possible solution for this is the Thai Canal also known as the Kra Canal project, a China-backed project that will give Beijing an alternative route to the congested Malacca Strait. This 120 kilometres long canal will be cut through the isthmus of Kra in Thailand and could therefore allow Chinese ships to move between its bases in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean without taking a 1000-kilometre detour around the tip of the Malaysian peninsula.
This plan would have fit neatly into China’s plan to encircle India, but as a coup de grâce to Beijing’s ambitions, the Thai government scrapped the Kra project a couple of days ago. Along with the decision to scrap the canal project, the Thai government also decided to drop the purchase of Chinese-made military submarines following public outrage over the controversial agreement. For China, it looks like their Malacca dilemma is going nowhere for the foreseeable future. For now, it’s one less thing for India to worry about.
What the world needs to do now
There is a pattern here that many won’t notice straight away. China often lends to countries that are often neglected by the superpowers. Mostly because they are managed by dictators, have weak legal systems and have dubious human rights track records. Prime examples are countries like Zimbabwe, Niger, Chad, Angola, Madagascar, Pakistan, North Korea etc.
It is a given that most superpowers don’t have trillions of dollars in reserves to spend on lavish infrastructure projects in developing countries. But if they were to come together and help these smaller nations; the world may be able to stop this Chinese juggernaut. The Belt & Road initiative and the String of Pearls are enough evidence of China’s global ambitions. For its part, the String of Pearls will ensure the permanent flow of natural resources to the ports, and the Belt and Road infrastructure will take the resources to China’s hinterlands. Thailand’s double blow to China is a reminder that not only for India, but Beijing’s ambitions pose serious threats to the interests of every country on this planet, in one way or the other.
The world has already had enough of China – more so due to its mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it’s more important than ever before for world powers to come together to the aid of smaller and vulnerable countries. If not, the world is heading towards a future where these countries would have mortgaged their existence to an autocratic communist colonialist empire.