The Chinese String of Pearls or How Beijing is Conquering the Sea

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In October 2013 the Chinese president Xi Jinping revealed his new Global development strategy called “The Belt and Road Initiative” (The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road). That was the official launch of arguably the largest and most ambitious economic initiative in world history so far. It will build a sustainable connection between China and Afro-Eurasia through various infrastructure projects in 60 countries with nearly 60 % of the world population and a GDP of $ 21 trillion.[1]

The strategy has been developed in two main directions –  by land and by sea. The land route envisages the establishment of six economic corridors linking China with Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and South Asia. According to data from the Chinese government, in the four years between 2013 and 2017, 50 state-owned companies have invested in nearly 1700 different infrastructure projects.[2] For its part, the Maritime Silk Road seeks to promote cooperation through investments in sea routes stretching from Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.

The ultimate long-term goal of this grandiose initiative would be making Beijing the dominant force in Eurasia, enabling China to surpass the European Union and the United States as leading economic and global powers.



And this is exactly where the need to protect all these interests and investments emerges. The theory for the “Chinese string of pearls” has evolved in the last two decades and it is related to Beijing’s vast economic and trade expansion and the resulting need for geostrategic security of the maritime routes and “choke points”. Each “pearl” represents a specific port project on the Indian Ocean coastline. Connecting these ports would create a chain of hubs, serving as economic centers or military and surveillance outposts for the Chinese army.

According to Beijing, officially there is no such strategy at present and all their actions are driven entirely by peaceful intentions aiming to protect their own commercial interests as well as to develop the regional economies. The latter would help in enhancing the Chinese regional soft power. However, for close observers, it is impossible to miss the existence of a systematic and deliberate sequence of actions stretching far beyond such humble intentions.

Following the classical geopolitical theories of Nicholas Spykman and Alfred Mahon, China apparently tries to use the periphery (rimland), going through the Asian and African coastlines to gain a dominant foothold in Afro-Eurasia and from there – into the rest of the world. From its closest ally North Korea to Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and 11 more African countries where China operates seaports, Beijing invests enormous amounts of resources in its efforts to project power. This happens through investments or direct control of key ports, airports or other infrastructure as well as through promoting stronger political and diplomatic relations. If all this is added to the vast expansion and modernization of the navy, one can put together a complex and multilayered strategy for maritime superiority.

The Pearls

Cambodia – China reached an agreement with the local government for the rights over 1/3 from the Ream naval base. The deal is sealed for the next 30 years with an automatic renewal clause every 10 years afterward. Beijing and Phnom Penh deny such agreement because it would be against the Cambodian constitution.[3] The project for Dara Sokor is also on the agenda. It covers 20 % from the Cambodian coastline and includes the construction of a resort, an airport, a deep-water port, and an industrial area. According to Japanese media, Dara Sokor has been leased to China for 99 years.[4]

Myanmar – there is an ongoing project for the construction of a deep-water port in Kyaukpyu, which would help the supply of oil and gas for the two pipelines between Myanmar and China. The implementation of this project would diversify the routes for natural resource delivery and would shorten their transportation from the Middle East and Afrika to China.

There are also speculations that in 1992 China established a surveillance outpost on Coco island to observe the maritime traffic in the Bay of Bengal and more specifically – the Indian navy.

Bangladesh – China is trying to negotiate a project to expand and modernize port Chittagong. For now, at least, their attempts have been unsuccessful, because of the strategic Bangladesh – India partnership.

Sri Lanka – Hambantota port was completed by Chinese companies in 2010. However, since then, the local government has indebted to such an extent, that now it is forced to lease the port to China for 99 years.

Maldives – there is a possible project for a submarine base on the Marao atoll.

Pakistan – Gwadar port was built, and it is now being operated by a Chinese dominated consortium of companies. It is strategically situated in direct proximity to the Strait of Hormuz and is critical to the establishment of the China – Pakistan economic corridor, which is an integral part of “The Belt and Road Initiative”.


Although the expansion in Africa might not be considered as part of the “Chinese String of Pearls”, it is still closely related to it and to the “Belt and Road Initiative”. An assessment by the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that there are currently 46 existing or planned ports in Africa, which are either funded, built or operated by Chinese companies.[5] Beijing’s investments in African ports are crucial in order to develop its economic ties and political clout. At the same time, they also provide various opportunities for the establishment of bases for operations of the Chinese navy.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning the special relations that China maintains with three countries from East Africa, namely Djibouti, Kenya, and Sudan.

Djibouti is extremely important to Beijing because it is strategically situated on the entrance of the Bab el Mandeb strait, which links the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. In this sense, Chinese companies have gained control over the port of Doraleh and in 2017 Beijing negotiated the rights over the naval base adjacent to Doraleh. The latter should serve as a logistic and support hub for humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. Of course, beyond the officially announced goals, there is much more, considering the presence of American, French and Japanese forces stationed nearby. In addition, China has also built a railway connecting Doraleh to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. For Beijing, Djibouti and the naval base there form a crossroad in the “string of pearls”, which is stretching from the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, reaching East Africa and from there to the rest of the continent and the Mediterranean.

The case of the Mombasa – Nairobi railway in Kenya is also very curious. At the end of 2018, it became clear that the Kenyan government had been having difficulties paying off its $2.3 billion loans from Chinese banks financing the project. The potential default on the loan would jeopardize the port of Mombasa, because according to the terms of the deal, its assets are collateral, and they are not protected by Kenya’s sovereign immunity due to a waiver in the contract.[6]

Historically, Sudan has always been the traditional Chinese ally in this part of the word. Or at least for the last 60 years. Even after the partition in 2011, Beijing remains Khartoum’s biggest trade partner. Chinese companies dominate the consortiums operating the oil pipelines “Greater Nile” and “PetroDar”, supplying fuel to Port Sudan. Since 2011, Chinese energy interests have shifted to South Sudan. The government in Djouba has negotiated agreements for major infrastructure projects in exchange for 30 000 barrels of crude per day.[7] Thus, South Sudan and Sudan along with Iran and Russia become the major importers of fuel for the Chinese economy.


Control over the South China Sea is one of the milestones in the Chinese strategy for dominance. The sea itself is one of the busiest commercial routes and the shortest possible way connecting the West Pacific/East Asia with the Indian Ocean, Africa, and Europe. It also provides direct access to nine of the ten largest commercial ports in the world.[8]

The annual trade flow through the South China Sea is estimated at 5 trillion $, which accounts for more than half of the world’s total commercial trade volume, as well as 1/3 of the total maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through Malacca strait towards East Asia is three times the amount transiting the Suez Canal and 15 times the amount passing through the Panama Canal. Approximately 90 % of the Chinese oil imports in 2016 were delivered from this route, coming from Africa and the Middle East.[9]

And in this context for the last 10 years, China has been trying aggressively to impose it is disproportionately large and unrecognized by the international community claims over 90 % of the South China Sea.[10]  The expansion involves the construction of entire islands, the building of airports and military outposts, as well as the imposition of economic and political pressure. In the end, all these efforts practically put China in a direct confrontation with the other regional powers and express Beijing’s will and ambition for global leadership.

To this date, the Chinese territorial claims are most evidently expressed by the occupation of the Paracel Islands (also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam) and part of the Spratly archipelago (also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines). Woody Island is Paracel’s main island and there China has built a fishing town, several minor ports and a small airport capable of maintaining fighter jets.[11] For its part, the Spratly archipelago is even more important, because of its strategic placement along the main maritime routes in the South China Sea, as well as its potential for the development of oil and gas fields. In the last three decades, the Chinese army has built and occupied at least seven artificial islands and islets, with three of them having airports and various military installations.



The vast expansion and modernization of the Chinese navy over the last decade have gone hand in hand with the development of the “Belt and Road” initiative and the strategy for securing maritime domination. Navy ships have traditionally always been the physical embodiment of a certain naval strategy through which a given country would pursue its interests. And this is clearly true for China. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, China currently has the world’s second-largest navy (by a total number of ships) and since 2015 it has been steadily grown even larger.[12] For the last five years alone, the Chinese army has launched vessels with a total tonnage bigger than the total tonnage of the entire Indian navy and according to The Diplomat’s Joe Rick assessment by 2030 the Chinese navy would look approximately like this:

  • 16-20 destroyers type 055
  • 36-40 destroyers type 052
  • 40-50 frigates type 054
  • Approximately 60 diesel submarines
  • At least 16 nuclear attack submarines
  • At least 8 ballistic nuclear submarines
  • 3 aircraft carriers
  • At least 3 landing helicopter docks
  • At least 8 landing platform docks[13]

The aircraft carrier program deserves special attention, with Beijing apparently relying on it for the implementation of its strategy. Aircraft carriers will significantly increase the options for the navy and its capabilities to project power. At the moment the only operational aircraft at service is the 65 000 t. “Liaoning”, “Admiral Kuznetzov” class. By the end of 2019, it is expected Type 002 to be officially launched, which will be a significantly improved version of “Liaoning” with a catapult take-off system and greater capacity. There is also Type 003 in its early stages of construction, and for which there is still no reliable data about its size or whether it will have nuclear or conventional propulsion.

In any case, the expansion of the Chinese navy is more than impressive, and it is far beyond the capabilities of most of the traditional naval powers. However, the expansion in size does not always mean expansion in quality as well. Especially when it comes to high-tech modern warships. The operational capacity of the Chinese navy is highly questionable and particularly there are serious doubts regarding the experience of crews and command. It is difficult to assume at present whether the naval academy in Dalian has the potential to produce enough well-trained and educated crews at the same speed the Chinese industry produces ships. In addition, the Chinese navy has almost no experience in combat tasks with the exception of some missions against Somalian pirates.

This trend, however, is unlikely to persist, and the potential remains enormous. The vast expansion of the navy not only allows China to change the balance of power regionally, but it is also very likely that it will allow Beijing to project influence far beyond its traditional sphere. Mostly through its strategic control over the major points along the line of the “Chinese String of Pearls” and the new opportunities for deployment of combat task forces, which this line will reveal.



The “Belt and Road” initiative is the visual evidence for the Chinese global ambitions to become a global superpower. For its part, the string of pearls is the strategy that should ensure the parament flow of natural resources for the economy and the industry, as well as to protect the commercial routes. But there is more. It is also a challenge for regional competitors like India. Historically, New Delhi has always considered the Indian Ocean as part of its sphere of influence, and Beijing’s expansion there is seen as a direct threat. Blocking trade routes and Chinese control over strategic ports is something that India fears. A justified fear without any doubt. India is slowly losing its influence over the trade routes in the Indian Ocean, and Chinese companies are displacing their Indian competitors in undertaking strategic infrastructure projects in the region. The good relations between China and Pakistan is another reason for concern. Especially regarding the economic corridor linking them and the Chinese support for the Pakistani cause in Kashmir.

Washington also shares similar fears. Because of the threatened interests of allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and of course because of the challenge posed to the US dominance in international relations. In this sense, for the last few years, President Trump’s administration has been pursuing a largely aggressive policy against China on all fronts. Including the trade war, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the Taiwan conflict and the denuclearization of North Korea.

Beijing invests a huge amount of resources and political will for implementation of its “String of Pearls” strategy. Although the future of the Chinese foreign policy looks bright, the success of this strategy still depends on many factors – mostly on the relations between China and the other powers in the Indian Ocean and of course on the relations between Beijing and America. The results from the presidential elections in 2020 might have a decisive importance in this regard. Whether it will be Donald Trump or someone else with a less hawkish stance. Whoever takes the important seat in the Oval Office will need to find a response to the Chinese challenge, which clearly shows its intentions to set the global agenda.



[1] Nadege, R, China’s New Silk Road, 12.05.2015,

[2] Gang, W, SOEs Lead Infrastructure Push in 1,700 ‘Belt and Road’ Projects, 09.05.2017,

[3] Page, J, Lubold, G, Taylor, R, Deal for Naval Outpost in Cambodia Furthers China’s Quest for Military Network, 22.07.2019,

[4] Hejmans, P, China-backed Dara Sakor project in Cambodia rings alarm bells in Washington,

[5] Devermont, J, Chiang, K, Assessing the Risks of Chinese Investments in Sub-Saharan African Ports, 4.06, 2019,

[6] Report: Kenya Risks Losing Port of Mombasa to China, 20.12.2018,

[7] South Sudan will provide a sixth of its oil output to China to fund road projects, 6.04.2019,

[8] Seven of them are Chinese, including Hong Kong and the other two are Busan in South Korea and Taiwan.

[9] [9] Strait of Malacca Key Chokepoint for Oil Trade, 27.08.2018,

[10] Божев, В, Надпреварата за Южнокитайско море,

[11] Brunstrom, D, China fighter plane spotted on South China Sea island: think tank,

[12] Childs, N, Waldwy, T, China’s naval shipbuilding: delivering on its ambition in a big way, 1.05.2019,

[13] Rick, Joe, Predicting the Chinese Navy of 2030, 15.02, 2019,

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