Despite the inhuman characters of Lovett and Todd, the phrase the ‘string of pearls’ is still an attractive metaphor probably because of the culmination of Johanna and Mark’s romance. Perhaps it is the same while using this phrase for strategically located seaports in the Indian Ocean region. I think there is no need to consider the phrase as a cunningly coined term to maliciously defame China’s strategic contribution to uplift the region through connectivity and economic progress. There is no doubt that all locations on the string carry significant importance for connectivity and trade.
In my opinion, the most precious pearl in the string is Gwadar; Hambantota and Chittagong are also important to keep the entire string operative even under the toughest global circumstances.
Efficient connectivity across the Indian Ocean from the Bab-el-Mandeb (Gate of Lamentation) to the Strait of Malacca can bring significant prosperity to the Indian Ocean countries. According to some estimates, two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves, thirty-five percent of the world’s gas wealth, sixty percent of uranium, forty percent of gold, and eighty percent of diamond reserves are owned by Indian Ocean countries.
According to Junaid Ashraf from the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, “The pearls are a metaphor for the Chinese seaports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Maldives. In Pakistan, China is building infrastructure at the Gwadar port, which is strategically located only 240 miles from the Straits of Hormuz. In Sri Lanka, the Hambantota port is of great significance as it is approximately 6 nautical miles away from the major Indian Ocean’s east-west shipping route. China is also interested in upgrading the Chittagong port facility and establishing its link to Yunnan province in China via Myanmar. Myanmar has a great strategic location as an ocean outlet, which would facilitate the flow of resources (oil in particular) to China, without passing through the vulnerable waters of the Malacca Strait. Furthermore, the Maldives is an island nation that is roughly around 1,190 coral islands, grouped in a double chain of 2 atolls oriented north-south off India’s Lakshadweep islands, between Minicoy Island and the Chagos Archipelago, where the American base of Diego Garcia, is located, making it strategically an important country.”
We need to comprehend a dual dimension of the ‘string of pearls’ theory coined by western countries to delineate the strategic depth of the Belt and Road (B&R) initiative of China.
On one side B&R brought enormous opportunities, which we couldn’t capitalise on so far, for Pakistan in the shape of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on the other, it led to innumerable challenges for Pakistan from both conventional friends and allies and traditional enemies.
In the case of enemies, it is quite evident and convenient to conceive that they will try their best to undermine the CPEC through every possible means by utilising our weak areas. However, it is a little complex to understand the apprehensions of friends.
As far as allies are concerned, they express their anxieties every here and then and continuously try to sabotage the project. But it is difficult for friends to explicitly take a position against CPEC. However, we can safely determine that interventions from all these international players do converge and shape a huge threat to the safety and prosperity of Pakistan.
If we remain unable to proactively address all pertinent aspects of the situation, we will probably be in havoc in the near future. We need to ponder two important facets, first—the strategic importance of Gwadar being the most precious pearl in the string, and second—our people on the route, especially in Balochistan and Gwadar.
The 20th-century naval flag officer, strategist, and historian, Alfred Thayer Mahan, had predicted that the future of the 21st century would be determined by the waters of the Indian Ocean in these words “whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters.”
Junaid Ashraf further argues, “More than 50 percent of the world’s maritime oil trade is carried out in the Indian Ocean, which itself is believed to be rich with energy reserves. The Indian Ocean is the hub of the most important strategic chokepoints in the global maritime trade, making maritime security and access to water vital to a state’s power and progress. The Straits of Hormuz and Malacca are also among such chokepoints through which 32.2 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum are transported every day.”
Under this scenario, the significance of CPEC goes manifold for both proponents and opponents of the project because CPEC liberates China from the clutches of these chokepoints to fulfil exceptional energy needs and also facilitates Chinese businesses to connect to the rest of the world most efficiently.
It is the responsibility of both China and Pakistan to make sure that people, the most important stakeholders in the project on the route of CPEC, remain happy and satisfied to make this strategic initiative a real success. Deprivation, poverty, lack of development & opportunities, and absence of basic necessities such as education, clean drinking water, amenities, and social security can easily lead them to accept any temptation to spoil the project.
We can’t ignore instances such as arresting Kulbhushan Jadhav from Balochistan who was involved in terrorism and spying activities in the province. We have to address all reasonable concerns of our people instead of inhibiting their voices and curbing their demands to help them avoid any temptation to become a tool in the hands of international players to create unrest in the country.
It is the responsibility of the governments of Pakistan and China to objectively analyse both the hard and soft aspects of the project through a four-pronged strategy. Completing proposed projects efficiently should remain one prong of the project.
The other and probably most important is the satisfaction and prosperity of people along the route of the project. The third should be to engage evident opponents helping them comprehend the economic impact of the CPEC and the social uplift of local communities which the project can ensure through growth and expansion activities by providing employment and other relevant facilities such as health and education to the least developed segments across the route.
Finally, we should not ignore friends to join the benefits of the project, otherwise, they can be even more harmful than obvious rivals of the project through their silent penetration into society and creating chaos from within which will be exceptionally challenging to handle.
Dr Abdus Sattar Abbasi
The writer is an associate professor and Head at the Centre of Islamic Finance, COMSATS University, Lahore Campus. He can be reached at drabdussattar