Daniel W. Drezner

China’s string of fake pearls

China’s string of fake pearls

For the past few years, a low level theme that occasionally pops into my news feed is the idea of greater Sino-Pakistani cooperation.  Now this has a certain amount of realpolitik sense to it.  The United States and Pakistan are not exactly on the best of terms, China is a rising power, they share a comon interest in containing India, yadda, yadda yadda.  As a result, there has been the occasional press story about closer ties, which begets the inevitable U.S.-based blog posts about China expanding its "string of pearls" strategy of more deepwater ports in the Asia/Pacific region.

There’s just one thing.  The more closely one reads these stories, the less clear it is that China wants a string of pearls.  Most of these stories talk about great Pakistani enthusiasm for more Chinese involvement.  That enthusiasm is not really reciprocated by China, however.  Consider Jane Perlez’s New York Times story from October 2011:   

A rising China with global ambitions is unlikely to supplant the United States in Pakistan, according to Chinese experts on Pakistan, as well as Pakistani and American officials. And while Pakistan’s latest flirtations with Beijing have been received cordially, Pakistani officials have walked away from their junkets with far less in hand than they might have hoped….

China’s core interests lie elsewhere — in its competition with the United States and in East Asia, experts say. China has shown little interest in propping up the troubled Pakistani economy, consistently passing up opportunities to do so.

Despite China playing it cool, Pakistan has continued to fall all over itself to attract greater Chinese engagement in their country.  Which leads us to today’s headline in the New York Times:  "Chinese Firm will Run Strategic Pakistani Port."   Sounds ominous for U.S. interests… until one reads Declan Walsh’s actual story:

Pakistan is handing management control of a strategic but commercially troubled deep-sea port to a Chinese company, the information minister confirmed Thursday….

The fate of Gwadar, once billed as Pakistan’s answer to the bustling port city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has been a focus of speculation about China’s military and economic ambitions in South Asia for the past decade. Some American strategists have described it as the westernmost link in the “string of pearls,” a line of China-friendly ports stretching from mainland China to the Persian Gulf, that could ultimately ease expansion by the Chinese Navy in the region. Gwadar is close to the Strait of Hormuz, an important oil-shipping lane.

But other analysts note that Gwadar is many years from reaching its potential, and they suggest that fears of creeping Chinese influence might be overblown. “There may be a strategic dimension to this, where the Chinese want to mark their presence in an important part of the world,” said Hasan Karrar, an assistant professor of Asian history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, referring to the management transfer at Gwadar. “But I wouldn’t go so far as saying this implies a military projection in the region.”….

Pakistan has failed to build the port or transportation infrastructure needed to develop the port, the property bubble has burst and, according to the port management Web site, the last ship to dock there arrived in November. “The government never built the infrastructure that the port needed — roads, rail or storage depots,” said Khurram Husain, a freelance business journalist. “Why would any shipping company come to the port if it has no service to offer?”

According to reports in the Pakistani news media, the Port of Singapore Authority sought to withdraw from the management contract after the Pakistani government failed to hand over land needed to develop the facility.  (emphasis added)

This greater Chinese involvement, it should be noted, also comes after Beijing rebuffed Pakistani requests to turn Gwadar into a naval base. 

So, to sum up:  despite Pakistan prostrating itself before China, Beijing has been extremely leery of getting too enmeshed in that country.  It has rejected repeated requests for military basing, and only now has a commercial Chinese company agreed to manage a port that appears to be the Pakistani exemplar of "white elephant." 

So please, no "strong of pearls" posts from the national security blogosphere today.  These pearls are about as fake as you can get. 

Am I missing anything?