Over at Foreign Policy, Dan Drezner pooh poohs the string of pearls idea—that China is actively building a network of naval bases and friendly countries around Asia, a noose that tightens around India’s neck. Dan doesn’t think China’s latest move into Pakistan actually amounts to much.
He’s right that some journalists have overhyped the clear and present danger side of this story, but serious news mavens still need to keep an eye on it. For one thing, many of the journalists most worried about this are in India, where there are also significant political and security figures who have the same worries. They don’t necessarily think that China is getting ready to strangle India’s commerce and dominate the Indian Ocean right now, but they worry about China laying the foundations for something that may be more formidable over time. Serious people in India will be proposing naval investments and diplomatic responses as they watch Chinese moves, and anybody trying to follow the emerging geopolitics of Asia needs to track this.
Additionally, there is the impact of these moves on Indian public opinion. Just as the greatest danger in the East and South China Sea island disputes isn’t a deliberate attack, but rather a continuing cycle of mounting tension and enraged public opinion gradually pushing policy in a more confrontational way, so the perception of a zero sum struggle between India and China can be a real factor even if perception is running ahead of reality. Journalists in India (and elsewhere) are overhyping this story, but that itself is news. The overhyping both responds to and fires up nationalist public opinion that then becomes a factor in politics.
Additionally, the China-Pakistan connection touches some sensitive Indian nerves. Most foreign policy experts agree that Pakistan’s desperate attempts to play the China card against both India and the US have limited value because the Chinese don’t really want to be saddled with the costs of a full Pakistani alliance. The bride is more anxious for the wedding than the groom. But that doesn’t mean that Indian public opinion won’t hyperventilate when its sees evidence of tightening ties between what many consider a terrorist state to the northwest and what they see as a rising hostile superpower to the northeast. That China is also attempting to build ties with India’s southern neighbor Sri Lanka is also a factor.
China is in no position anytime now or soon to challenge the US as the dominant naval power in the region, and should a real naval race develop India wouldn’t face China alone. Countries like Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia and the US would likely help preserve the balance of power. But bold Chinese moves, however limited, have an impact, and journalists are right to call attention to them and western readers need to know what Indians mean by the ‘string of pearls’ and need to be able to see how Chinese moves strengthen the perception that just such a string is Beijing’s goal.
Drezner is right to pour cold water on the idea that China is right now launching a bid for mastery in the Indian Ocean, but Americans who ignore the growing tension among the rising powers of Asia will miss one of the key developments in the world today.