The string of pearls

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

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