State visits between friendly countries seldom produce surprises or unscripted moments, but the recent trip to China by top Pakistani officials managed to do just that.
Upon returning to Islamabad, the defense minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, made two eyebrow-raising announcements: first, that Beijing had agreed to take over operation of Gwadar port in Baluchistan, and, second, that he had invited the Chinese to build a naval base there. China's leaders, seemingly caught unaware by these statements, promptly denied them.
Is China building an empire on the sea?
Nevertheless, Mukhtar's seemingly ad-libbed remarks revived the debate about China's ambitions in southwest Asia. For example, last week, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece provocatively titled "China Breeds Chaos" claimed that "China wants to get into the great-power maritime game by operating ports throughout the Indian Ocean." Is Gwadar an isolated case or an important platform for the projection of Chinese influence in the region?
For much of the past decade, a theory called the "string of pearls" has gained currency, with proponents suggesting that Beijing is seeking to expand its influence by developing a "string" of commercial ports and listening posts -- "pearls" -- along the rim of the Indian Ocean. The term seems to have been first coined by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in a 2005 report "Energy Futures in Asia" and elaborated upon by dozens of armchair strategists since. A 2006 study from the U.S. Army War College described this purported strategy as a "manifestation of China's ambition to attain great power status and secure a self-determined, peaceful, and prosperous future" and hailed the development of Gwadar's port -- then in its early stages -- as a "win-win prospect for both China and Pakistan."
But is it?
It is easy to understand why Beijing would be keen to build and operate a port in southwest Pakistan. Gwadar's strategic location at the crossroads of the global energy trade -- opposite the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf -- offers Beijing a handy transit terminal for Middle Eastern energy imports. With the Middle East likely to remain the largest source of China's crude oil imports, a significant portion of this supply will continue to transit the Indian Ocean. China therefore has an obvious interest in securing vital sea lanes. A commercial port facility offers a relatively uncontroversial means to achieve an important energy security objective.
Some have taken the "string of pearls" vision a step further, suggesting that military factors are also at play. In particular, some observers have claimed (so far without much evidence) that China is constructing naval bases at Gwadar, among other places. For example, Robert D. Kaplan writing in Foreign Affairs in 2009 claimed: "The Chinese government has already adopted a 'string of pearls' strategy for the Indian Ocean.… It is building a large naval base and listening post in Gwadar, Pakistan, … a fueling station on the southern coast of Sri Lanka … and a container facility with extensive naval and commercial access in Chittagong, Bangladesh." (Kaplan seems to have changed his assessment since then.)