China's 'string of pearls' a rich naval bounty

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 October, 2009, 12:00am

When US Navy warships arrive in Hong Kong, they do so for reasons far beyond a little R-and-R for the sailors in Wan Chai or Lan Kwai Fong.

Beyond the hard business of running repairs, resupply and refuelling, there are also the intangibles of power projection and military diplomacy; mainland officials are frequent guests at on-board cocktail parties whenever US aircraft carriers visit. Occasional interruptions in the routine - the USS Kitty Hawk carrier was rejected by Beijing just before Thanksgiving two years ago - sparked considerable head-scratching at the Pentagon.

In short, big navies need friendly ports and bases.

It is an equation under greater scrutiny inside and outside China as mainland military analysts and scholars struggle to align Beijing's desire for a major blue-water navy with its more traditional doctrines of non-alignment and non-interference, notions that hardly encourage a significant military presence overseas.

Reports this week that Beijing is planning to build a new generation of heavy destroyers to fully reach its blue-water goals is just one more sign that a network of friendly ports, if not full bases, must follow in their wake.

Like so much about China's military build-up, however, every action is followed by a reaction.

Military planners across the region have noted, some with alarm, a recent commentary in the Global Times mouthpiece outlining the need for China to develop overseas bases and support facilities.

PLA Air Force Colonel Dai Xu wrote of the need not just to defend China's growing international commercial interests but to develop its military participation in international peacekeeping and disaster relief efforts.

He even suggested a test base in the South China Sea, adding that it could promote development with neighbouring states - an argument that appears to gloss over current tensions in the disputed area.

'If we make things difficult for ourselves in this matter by maintaining a rigid understanding of the doctrines of nonalignment and the non-stationing of troops abroad, then it will place a lot of constraints on us across the board,' Dai wrote.

And right now, it is ambitions rather than constraints dominating mainland military thinking.

Already, regional big-power rival India is eyeing China's steadily growing influence in the Indian Ocean through a host of interests in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - a so-called string of pearls of port projects that some analysts warn are thinly disguised staging posts.

Certainly there will be considerable economic interests to protect, from shipping lanes to an oil and gas pipeline now under construction in Myanmar that will link landlocked Yunnan province with the Rahkine coast.

Noting growing debate among mainland analysts, US-based military scholars Andrew Erikson and Michael Chase said it was unclear whether it marked shifting personal views or official policy. Yet the debate was clearly shifting from the days when China's strategists stuck to a policy of 'no bases and no places', the pair wrote in a report for the Jamestown Foundation.

As such, China can be expected to learn from US policy shifts and opt for 'places' - a network of friendly ports - rather than bases.

The US still operates both. But bases inevitably carry political as well as military headaches.

The US was forced to close its bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s while its extensive presence in Japan remains a source of potential tension with its most important East Asian ally.

For China, places will be a much easier sell to an increasingly suspicious neighbourhood.