China’s Rebranding Trick: The Maritime Silk Road

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2016
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Is China's 'Maritime Silk Route' a euphemism for building a large navy or the 'String of Pearls'
Vice Adm Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd)
Friday, February 19, 2016

“What’s in a Name?”asks William Shakespeare, while penning his famous “Romeo and Juliet”.  Contrary to gentle Juliet’s assertion “that which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet”, the harsher realities of geostrategy indicate that there is, indeed, a great deal in a name. The contemporary mandarins of the People’s Republic of China appear to have taken this to heart in their espousal and extensive branding of what has been named the ‘Maritime Silk Route’ within the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative.   

In July, 2006, then-Lt Col Christopher J Pehrson, USAF, published his dissertation entitled “String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power across the Asian Littoral”. The expression “String of Pearls”, first used in January 2005, in a report to US military officials prepared by the US consulting-firm of Booz-Allen Hamilton, rapidly caught the world’s imagination. It posited China as a sinister,rising global power, playing a new strategic game, as grandiose in its concept, formulation and execution as the “Great Game” of the 19th Century.  Despite vehement and frequent denials by the Chinese leadership of any such geostrategic machinations designed at the assimilation of enhanced geopolitical and geo-economic power and influence, the expression rapidly embedded itself into mainstream consciousness. 

The Chinese have always been quick to imbibe lessons learnt by their ‘polar opposite’, the USA.  It is, therefore, appropriate to recall a ‘seminal lesson’ in strategic communications that originated with one of the better known American admirals of our time, Admiral Michael Mullen.  His strong support to a concept which, like the “String of Pearls”, became another global catch-phrase - in its own right and at about the same time, - would reveal the limitations of catchiness and the importance of correct ‘branding’. This concept was the ‘Thousand Ship Navy’. In 2005, Admiral Mullen launched the expression as a new cooperative-model aimed at greater maritime domain awareness by all nations.  It sought to broaden the traditional focus of the world’s navies.  From the traditional one that restricted itself to the traditional military functions of ‘dissuasion’, ‘deterrence’ and ‘war-fighting’, it sought to provide centrality to the establishment of a stable and law-abiding maritime domain, the protection of mercantile-shipping and the International Sea Lanes (ISLs) on/along which mercantile-shipping moves, and, the prosecution of maritime criminals and trans-national maritime-terrorist groups. It was basically a concept for the sharing of information about the goings-on in the maritime domain (‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ [MDA]).  The concept postulated that the business of ‘sharing of information’ should not be limited to ‘navies’ alone, but needed to include as many maritime agencies as possible - port and harbour authorities, shipping companies, Coast Guard organisations, marine police forces, etc. Admiral Mullen emphasised that the challenges faced at sea were too diverse to be tackled by any nation alone and required more capability and resources than any single nation could independently deliver.  He pleaded that “... the economic tide of all nations rises, not when the seas are controlled by one, but rather when they are made safe and free for all...”He repeatedly explained that the adjective ‘Thousand’ was merely meant to convey a ‘consortium of maritime agencies’, all working for the common good.  Like the ‘String of Pearls’, the ‘Thousand-Ship Navy’ had a definite ‘Madison Avenue’ ring to it. Yet, in this very catchiness lay its doom. As a result of differing degrees of fluency in the idiomatic usage of the English language in different countries of the world -India most certainly included - the ‘Thousand-Ship Navy’, conjured up visions of a huge, American-controlled naval fleet, attempting to dominate, if not control, the global maritime domain. Poorly-read politicians, along with an often equally ill-informed media, went into a ‘feeding frenzy’ centred upon perceptual apprehensions and fears.  As many individuals and nations have learnt to their cost - that which is true and that which is perceived to be true are both true, at least while the perception persists. The USA failed to recognise just how formidable cultural and linguistic barriers could be and consequently failed prepare the ‘market’ to accept the ‘product’. Although the US Navy, eventually recognised that this was essentially a ‘branding’ problem and re-named this concept the ‘Global Maritime Partnership’, it was too little too late and it was the older name, along with its negative connotations, that stuck.

None of this has been lost upon China.  Chafing under a decade-long opprobrium heaped upon it for a concept (the ‘String of Pearls’)that it had never once articulated, the Chinese leadership is now seeking to offer an alternative, more acceptable term or expression - albeit for essentially the very same geo-strategic maritime game plays that Colonel Pehrson outlined a decade ago. The alternative expression is ‘The Maritime Silk Route’.  As an expression, it is a brilliant exercise in re-branding.  It avoids the prosaically of the US alternative to the ‘Thousand Ship Navy’.  Instead, it draws upon the ‘romance’ of a shared pan-Asian history and evokes the dream of re-establishing the economic prosperity that the Asian continent’s major civilizational and socio-cultural entities, namely China and India,once enjoyed. This macro-economic feature had been brilliantly captured by the late British economist, Angus Maddison.  Reproduced below is a tabulation drawn from his seminal book, “The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective”:

China’s apex-level leadership is acutely conscious of the ‘attitudinal’ problem it has in Asia and the world.  Yet, with its strong military-education and its civilizational reverence for history (both standing in sharp contrast to India), it is simultaneously aware of the possibilities offered by history in terms of brand-positioning its geostrategic moves in a manner that is not only ‘acceptable’ to the region, but one that is positively ‘welcomed’ by it. As such, it has spared no pains in projecting the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative as one in which each country along the ‘Maritime Silk Route’ sees itself as a positive stakeholder in the promise of future economic prosperity. Indeed, it is fascinating to see today’s Chinese leadership overcoming an attitudinal problem that is a legacy of the country’s ‘modern’ history, by dipping into (and emphasizing) China’s relatively more ‘ancient’ history.  But for all that, this is not much more than ‘smoke and mirrors’.... ‘gloss and bling’, designed to sweeten the combo-pill of ‘geostrategy’, geo-politics and geo-economics.

In the current Century, whether by design, or by default, China - like India - is being driven by economic imperatives to the formulation and adoption of a true maritime strategy - one that cannot easily be connected by a geographically contiguous line centred upon a core land-area. This is what Booz Allen Hamilton, Lt Col Pehrson, and a large number of strategic thinkers and writers, have termed the ‘String of Pearls’ strategic-construct. It is important to remember that ‘economic imperatives’ are the principal drivers of this construct, because China’s four largest strategic concerns- regime-survival, the enhancement of ‘face’, territorial integrity, and, domestic stability - are all inexorably linked to its economy. The economy is China’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability and, therefore, it is the center piece of the country’s policy and strategy.  To sustain her economic growth, China and India must rely increasingly upon external sources of energy and raw materials. The principal sources of supply for both countries, lie either in the Indian Ocean, or must travel across the Indian Ocean - which is precisely why, as the geographical competition-space between the two coincide in the Indian Ocean, it will become difficult to predict when competition might transform into conflict. 

In terms of shipping density, India Ocean is one of the busiest waterways of the world.  Every year, well over 100,000 ships transit the ISLs that criss-cross this ocean.  The Strait of Malacca alone accounts for some 70,000 ships annually while the Strait of Bab el Mandeb/Gulf of Aden sees the annual transit of some 22,000 ships. Of all the cargo that moves along the international shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, the most critical to China (and India) is petroleum and petroleum-products, for an ever-increasing demand for energy fuels China’s and India’s economic growth. Although the share of coal is still the largest component of the energy-basket of both countries, oil-consumption is growing so rapidly that it is driving the foreign policy and security perspectives of both China and India. Almost 45% of all new world oil demand is attributable to the rising energy-needs of China. In 2014, China imported 308 million tonnes of crude-oil, i.e., 6.17 Mn bpd  (barrels per day). By Apr 2015, Reuters confirmed that China was importing 7.4 Mn bpd and by 2020, this figure will rise to a mind boggling 10.6 Mn bpd! (By contrast, India imports 3.9 Mn bpd). Over 70% of China’s oil imports come from West Asia and Africa (with an increasing share being taken-up by Brazil and Colombia.  All of this is transported by sea.  It is true that there are three crude-oil pipelines running into China and each is an engineering marvel - the ‘Eastern Siberia Pacific Pipeline’ (ESPO) with a spur line into China, the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline, and, the Myanmar-China oil pipeline.  However, all three pipelines put together can contribute only 15% of China’s crude-oil imports and by 2020, the percentage-contribution of the pipelines will drop to 13.4%, leaving 86.6% to still be transported by sea.  Just to provide some perspective to readers, a Bloomberg screen-grab of 12 Dec 14 shows as many as 83 VLCCs (carrying 166 million barrels of crude) bound for Chinese ports! Chinese companies (in aggregate) currently own about 70 very large crude carriers out of a total global VLCC fleet of 633 units, or about 11% of the world’s working supertankers. In addition, Chinese firms currently have about 30 new tankers on order.  This is one-third of the current global order book!  The problem is compounded by the fact that for the most part, this life-blood of China must necessarily be sourced-from and flow-across predominantly-maritime areas that far more distant than continental constructs such as the ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Island Chains cater for. As if these were not problems enough, China’s energy must pass through several of the Indian Ocean’s maritime choke-points.  Unlike the case with the Atlantic or the Pacific oceans, the orientation of the various International Shipping Lanes that pass through the Indian Ocean is shaped by a finite number ‘choke-points’:

• The Suez Canal

• The Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb

• The Strait of Hormuz

• Around the Cape of Good Hope/ Cape Aghulas (a weather-determined choke-point)

• The Strait of Malacca

• The Sunda Strait

• The Lombok Strait

• The Ombai-Wetar Strait

These choke-points - especially those connecting the Indian and the Pacific Oceans - constitute major vulnerabilities for China and are collectively referred-to as China’s ‘Malaca Dilemma’.  For China, the mitigation of these vulnerabilities is a strategic imperative of very significant proportions. Given the fact that pipelines will address only 13.4% of China’s annual

crude-oil imports, it is evident that China’s Malacca-dilemma is far from resolved. The solution has at least three parts: reducing import-dependence through energy efficiencies and harnessing alternative sources of power, investment in the construction of additional pipelines such as one across Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra, and building credible naval forces capable of securing China’s Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs).

The unavoidable and ever-increasing off-take from high-capacity sources of oil and gas... the strategic need to avoid placing all its energy-eggs in a single basket... the consequent need to ensure economic development and hence domestic stability in each of these diverse sources of oil and minerals.... the need to ensure the security of its oceanic transportation of its energy-imports.... and, the need to find mitigating strategies to reduce its vulnerabilities in the choke points of the Indian Ocean... are the five strategic concerns that generate the ‘String of Pearls’. Each ‘pearl’ is a link in a chain of Chinese geopolitical influence or military presence. It is by no means necessary for a line joining the various pearls to encircle the Chinese mainland (in that ripple-in-a-pond simile so beloved of continental thinkers).  In fact, since the String of Pearls is a true maritime construct, it is highly unlikely that they will do so.  Thus, for example, Hainan Island, with its recently upgraded military facilities and sheltered submarine base, is a ‘pearl’.   Similarly, the upgraded airstrip on Woody Island, located in the Paracel Islands, some 300 nm east of Vietnam, is another ‘pearl’, as is Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.  The Chinese-assisted, container-shipping facility in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and the development of a major oil terminal at the port of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar constitute yet more ‘pearls’, as do the development by China of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and the possible development of a suitable atoll in the Seychelles.  Even Australia yields a ‘pearl’ thanks to Chinese strategic investment in uranium-mining companies in Western Australia.  Likewise with the deep involvement in infrastructure projects in Sudan and Angola, the construction of the Gwadar Deep Sea Port on Pakistan’s Makran Coast, and so on and so forth. The ‘String of Pearls’ strategic-construct is not only about  maritime infrastructure projects involving the construction of ports and airfields, even though these constitute its most obvious and visible manifestation.  It is equally about new, renewed, or, re-invigorated diplomatic-ties between the PRC and nation-states across a very wide geographical swath (including the African littoral and the island-nations of both, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean).         

It is true that there is no official statement from China as to which ports/countries will constitute the ‘Maritime Silk Route’.  However, the internet is flooded with indicative ‘route-maps’ (many emanating from Chinese scholars) and it is most instructive to see the huge commonalities in the basic alignment of the ‘Maritime Silk Route’ and the ‘String of Pearls’.

To revisit the opening argument that has guided this piece, it would be evident that all these strategic game moves of China suddenly gain both acceptability and traction (and, in the case of some of the more leftist parties in India, enthusiastic endorsement and support, as well!) if the ‘String-of-Pearls’ brand can be replaced by the ‘Maritime-Silk-Route’ brand. 

What’s in a name, indeed? A cleverly poisoned thorn, By any other name would injure just as grievously.  

Military Technology