Bury Your Own “String of Pearls”


From the annals of Slow-Motion Quick Responses…

Breaking News! A team from the National Defense University (NDU) is objecting to a Naval Diplomat column of mine from November which commented on a report of theirs that appeared the month before. Gentle readers, scope out the links and rush back pronto before I lay into my fellow educators of the U.S. military!

‘Tis passing strange, the NDU stalwarts’ critique. It warrants a couple of quick rejoinders. First of all, you’ll notice that they don’t respond to the content of my column, namely a historical counterfactual urging those offering predictions about strategy to exercise caution. Let me recap. My thesis for this one is, in effect: never say never.

Never, that is, hold forth too confidently on how a rising sea power such as China will deploy military might in waters where it deems its interests in peril. As I noted, the NDU authors consider a range of possibilities—one of them the “String of Pearls Model”—that describe how Beijing might mount a forward naval presence in the Indian Ocean region.

Well and good. But after weighing these possibilities, they conclude that nothing in China’s track record to date “supports assertions that the Chinese intend to deploy enough forces in the Indian Ocean to dominate the region or engage in major combat operations with any of its neighbors.”

Methinks that’s a rather strong prediction about an ambitious, mercurial Asian competitor. It could be the NDU team is right. Or maybe not. Let’s keep an open mind lest the paradoxical logic of international competition shunt regional affairs onto some unforeseen path. It would hardly be the first time such a thing has happened.

So for fun, I posed a counterfactual: wouldn’t a team of analysts from imperial Spain, exercising their strategic foresight, have rendered an NDU-like verdict on U.S. maritime ambitions circa, say, 1897?

That year America possessed precisely zero Caribbean naval stations—let alone island bases in the Pacific Ocean. Nor did it evince much desire for any. Why would Spaniards expect Washington to break with its established pattern?

Few would. Yet projecting the past into the future has its hazards. Soon afterward, the Spanish-American War of 1898 gave way to a spate of island acquisitions—acquisitions that would’ve confounded our hypothetical Spanish experts.

In other words, the United States assembled a string of pearls connecting North America with the Far East—and it did so without signaling its ambitions, or even knowing it entertained such ambitions. These were major combat operations, undertaken with little notice, that conferred dominance in nearby waters, an outpost far from home, and naval stations connecting the two.

Never say never.

Things are easier now. Beijing, unlike Washington in 1897, has telegraphed its desire for some kind of South Asian naval presence. The only question is what kind. Chinese officialdom isn’t saying. Like the American leadership then, China’s leadership now may not know precisely what it wants. It may simply be creating options for itself should the need arise for a muscular forward presence.

And, like the Spanish-American War, some Black Swan could alight in South Asia—altering circumstances entirely, and perhaps for the worse. Let’s keep our prophecies humble.

Second, the NDU team waxes indignant about the phrase string of pearls, which appears only in the title to my column. Anyone who writes commentary with any frequency knows that authors don’t write titles; editors do. The offending phrase appears nowhere in the column itself.

But since the NDU authors raise the issue, let’s delve into it. I reject their view. They define string of pearls restrictively. And they insist that everyone—including the Chinese, who neither coined the phrase nor have made it their own—accept their definition as a given, use it a yardstick for China’s maritime strategy in South Asia, and discard it if China’s designs don’t meet the needlessly exacting standards they set.

J’refuse! Why let a self-appointed group of linguists write the strategic dictionary? Let’s recall how the phrase string of pearls originated: with an Indian participant in a 2004 Booz Allen workshop that fed into a 2005 report to the U.S. Office of Net Assessment, and thence into wider discourses.

The bumper sticker was so catchy it caught on in Washington. And once Indian officials and commentators got wind of it, string of pearls found its way into common parlance on the subcontinent. It made convenient shorthand for a purported Chinese effort to encircle India with naval bases in neighboring countries.

Trouble is for the NDU authors, few define a string of pearls the way they do: namely as a Chinese endeavor that includes “secret access agreements and covert development of commercial facilities to support later military use, with the ultimate objective of being able to support major combat operations against India and to dominate the Indian Ocean Region.”

That’s a straw man, easy to bat down. Who would object to banishing string of pearls if it means what they say?

Except it doesn’t. The conspiratorial dimension they impute to it—secret agreements! covert port development! regional domination!—commands little support beyond certain fevered precincts, such as the occasional Indian pundit or retired military officer.

No. The accepted definition—if there is one, which I doubt—bears more resemblance to Booz Allen’s original definition from 2004, as briefed by a Booz Allen team here at the Naval War College some years later: “Definition: ‘China is building strategic relationships along the sea-lanes from the Middle East to the [South China Sea] in ways that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China’s interests, but also to serve broad security objectives.’”

Courting strategic relations along sea routes connecting Southeast with South Asia. Amassing defensive and offensive options. Advancing broad Chinese security objectives. That’s a broad concept—not to mention a serviceable yardstick for Beijing’s aspirations, words, and deeds in the region (see this post at The American Interest for an example).

That remains true even though the string of pearls is a concept made in India, popularized by Americans, seized on by Indians back in India, and projected onto China by outsiders.

So if you want to bury the string of pearls, colleagues, bury your own version. It doesn’t add much to the strategic lexicon anyway.


James Holmes is professor of strategy at the Naval War College and, starting next month, will be the military-affairs columnist at Real Clear Defense. The views voiced here are his alone.