Will China’s ‘String of Pearls’ Stretch From the South China Sea to the Atlantic?

December 8, 2021 Updated: December 12, 2021

News Analysis

Fifteen years ago, it was fashionable to speak of China’s emerging “string of pearls”: a chain of bases, ports, and other maritime facilities stretching from the South China Sea, through the Singapore-Malacca Straits, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Red Sea.

If not directly owned or controlled by China, this network-of-access would permit the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the naval arm of the Chinese military, to become a more or less permanent presence in the Indian Ocean. As a result, the PLAN could secure China’s access to some of its most important sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), safeguarding the critical flow of energy supplies—particularly crude oil—from the Middle East, and protecting China’s trade routes to Europe.

Until quite recently, however, there was no such “string of pearls.” Indeed, to many, the whole idea was a flight of Western imagination.

It has gotten a lot less imaginary lately. Over the past decade, as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has undertaken a network of maritime projects—deepwater harbors, container shipping facilities, and other infrastructure developments that are expanding China’s economic and trade presence in the Indian Ocean. China has funded and built ports in Colombo and Hambantota, in Sri Lanka; in Gwadar and Karachi, in Pakistan; in Sittwe, Burma (Myanmar); and the Seychelles.

Moreover, Chinese companies, particularly the shipping giant Cosco, have stakes in several commercial ports all along the eastern and western coasts of Africa, as well as the Maldives.

This rise of Chinese economic activity in the Indian Ocean has naturally brought in the PLAN. As the PLA’s official English-language news website put it, “the PLA’s responsibilities today have gone beyond the scale of guarding the Chinese territories,” requiring it to “protect China’s interests anywhere in the world. Overseas military bases will provide cutting edge support for China to guard its growing overseas interests.”

While the PLAN may not yet possess a coherent constellation of “bases and places” stretching across the Indian Ocean, it is increasing more than ever before its presence and activities in the region. The PLAN maintains surveillance facilities in Pakistan and Burma, while its ships have access to a number of ports and naval bases in the Indian Ocean for resupply.

More importantly, China’s first overseas base was its naval facility located in Djibouti, a small country on the horn of Africa situated at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Established around five years ago, this PLAN “logistical support facility” contains a 1,120-foot-long pier (big enough for China’s aircraft carriers) and is home to around 1,000 to 2,000 military personnel.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese People’s Liberation Army personnel attend the opening ceremony of China’s new military base in Djibouti on Aug. 1, 2017. (STR/AFP via Getty Image)

This base in Djibouti may soon be joined by another PLAN facility on Africa’s west coast. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. intelligence community is increasingly concerned that China intends to establish a naval base at Bata, Equatorial Guinea. Bata already possesses a deepwater port constructed by a Chinese company.

If true, then the PLAN could have its first permanent military presence on the Atlantic Ocean, giving Chinese warships direct access to the United States’ eastern seaboard.

Given China’s emphasis not only on expanding international trade and commerce, but on increasing its political clout globally, it is not surprising that Beijing is attempting to strengthen its ability to project sustainable power farther and farther beyond its territory.

According to James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College, China is increasingly “taking its cue” from Alfred Thayer Mahan, the pre-eminent sea power theorist of the late 19th century. According to Mahan, sea power rests on three pillars: factories at home and markets abroad; navies and merchant fleets; and naval stations based along important sea lanes to support those fleets. Put in its simplest terms, that amounts to commerce, ships, and bases.

Hence the appeal to China in expanding its control of global trade, as embodied in the BRI and its sea-based subsidiary, the “Maritime Silk Road.” This strategy also accounts for China’s interests in expanding and modernizing the PLAN and making it a “blue-water navy.”

The third element of the Mahanian stratagem requires a string of naval bases, or at least base access. This is why Djibouti is so important. It is strategically located near some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, controlling access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. It also serves as a key refueling and transshipment center, and is the principal maritime port for imports from and exports to neighboring Ethiopia.

Expanding the PLAN’s network of port access in friendly countries, along with genuine naval bases on both coasts of Africa, is very much in keeping with 19th century arguments that “the fleet follows the flag,” that is, that naval forces go forth to protect a nation’s global commerce and its shipping.

China’s growing global military footprint initially may have been the result of its expanding international economic and commercial interests. Increasingly, however, geostrategic and great-power aspirations are outstripping economics. Like the United States, China wants to be a global superpower, with a world-girdling presence, and these ambitious are driving its new string-of-pearls basing schemes.

Consequently, one should not be surprised to see China attempt to establish military bases, or at least access agreements, far beyond its shores. This would likely include forts and airfields in Central Asia, and leased or rented naval bases along the Indian Ocean. More critically, the PLA could seek to establish more bases on the African continent or, perhaps, even in Latin America (Venezuela is a likely prospect).

In such cases, economics would not so much lead as it would reinforce China’s military globalization efforts. A “string of pearls” would become a chain of iron.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.