China’s increasing economic and military clout now has a third dimension, its desire to engage with other countries for building infrastructure development and connectivity projects. Beijing’s ‘String of Pearls’ is one such umbrella project aimed at developing ports all across the Indian Ocean nations for trade facilitation and maintaining a presence in the region. Several of these projects have been viewed with suspicion for their opaqueness both in their decision-making and execution. Moreover, the nature of the projects in several of these ports fails to match the stated Chinese objective, leading to further speculation about the projects. Most of the extant literature on China, on the Belt and Road Initiative and the String of Pearls project, has focused on Beijing’s larger strategic objective of becoming a global power and maritime power by mid-21st century.
However, what has been largely lacking in these studies and analysis has been perspectives from the countries involved in these projects. The book under review is one such attempt to fill the gap by providing a country-wise perspective that China’s String of Pearls strategy encompasses. He takes one country or ‘pearl’ (Australian Islands in the Indian Ocean, Bangladesh, French islands, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Seychelles, Sri Lanka) in each of the chapters and provides the reason each of these countries have turned into a hotspot for Chinese maritime strategy.
Lintner’s background as a journalist and his extensive experience in Myanmar’s politics lend an interdisciplinary approach to an otherwise geo-economic and geo-political issue. This is the strength of the book. Besides presenting a lesser known, historical background of each of these ports and ‘touristy island’ destinations, what adds an edge to the book are the intrinsic inputs and details such as political and diplomatic issues that are unique to journalistic research. Such minutiae explicate the nuances that are not readily available to the layman. He has built upon this approach by adding the requisite academic writings and articles from scholars and analysts working on the issue, thus providing complementarity to the facts provided in this book.
The Costliest Pearl deals with socio-political history and the current diplomatic relations of each of the ‘pearls’ with several powers such as Australia, US, France, Britain, China and India. The author does not make an obvious connection or comparison between the stories, nor does he provide any conclusions. It may be a deliberate effort to provide historical facts and current issues in an open-ended manner. But this can be counted as a weak point in this otherwise extensively well-researched body of work.
From Myanmar to Djibouti, several countries were previous French or British colonies. A political vacuum was created after independence, leading to the establishment of authoritarian regimes, often backed by previous colonizers to retain their political control over these strategically located ports and islands. The author ties together what look like the geographically distinct ports and countries under the vision of Beijing’s maritime strategy, by the threads of commonality. All these countries located in what is referred to as the ‘global south’ are ethnically diverse communities brought together by the perils of slavery and colonialism. Even after independence, they continued to face political instability and poverty. The book further highlights China’s relationship with each of the countries where one could observe similarities. Diplomatic relations of China with state leaderships stand differently from the people-centric diplomatic approach used by countries like the US. Beijing, despite its self-professed non-interventionist policy, has been seen supporting the Communist parties and revolutionary movements within these countries that challenge the existing leadership.
Another emerging aspect of Beijing’s bilateral diplomacy is military diplomacy wherein there is a focus on joint military exercises and sale of military equipment. Even the economic aid for infrastructure developments to these countries comes in the form of loans and equities-based debt system. After Sri Lanka had to lease its Hambantota Port for ninety-nine years due to failure of repayment of US$ 1.3 billion loan to China, some of the countries were suspicious of these loans. Similarly, due to the inherent hesitation amongst countries, China has been repeatedly thwarted from establishing any military base/port or conducting any overt operations that might destabilize the peace and security of the region.
Another commonality that these countries have faced is a brief period of Socialism and Communism to challenge the leadership. The Soviet Union (now Russia), China, Cuba and even North Korea supported the socialist wave to overthrow the regimes in Myanmar, Madagascar, etc. That further destabilized the socio-political systems, infusing the two extreme ideologies––Capitalism and Communism. Incidentally, even though socialist policies failed in most of these countries, they made the Chinese model of development more acceptable to them.
Despite highlighting several crucial points of the String of Pearl strategy, the book could have done more in terms of inquiring into China’s reasons for building of these ports in the Indian Ocean. The author does point out to the fact that this strategy will enable Chinese presence in the region, alternate routes for its oil and gas supply as well as to protect its crucial Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) passing the Indian Ocean. However, the economic non-viability of these roads and rails projects as a part of the port systems as well as the presence of offensive platforms such as submarines in regional waters only raise further questions on these claims, something that could have been dealt with more in detail in this book.
The author adds a level of perplexity when he repeatedly mentions the Indian Ocean as ‘India’s Ocean’. Though he is not the first one to coax Indian political leadership to ponder over the same, the subtitle and text do not go far in explaining his reasons for doing that, leaving the reader confused.
The Costliest Pearl is a candid effort to delve into the bits of a larger strategy and to make sense of it. Lintner’s extensive research is visible where he tries to weave together several strands of analyses. The book would have benefitted if the author had used these threads to make a solid rope of argument. Conversely, the final chapter ends with dabbling on how the stakeholders in the Indian Ocean region are recalibrating their strategies concerning China’s BRI and String of Pearls strategy in the region.
Pooja Bhatt is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.