war on the rocks

China, War, and Logistics in the Indian Ocean

March 3, 2015

Professor James Holmes and I are in the middle of the usual public back and forth that takes place between academics who disagree strongly. In a January piece here at War on the Rocks, Holmes took issue with an article I wrote that was published in the Diplomat, which itself was a rejoinder to his article criticizing our National Defense University (NDU) report, “Not An Idea We Have to Shun: Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the Twenty First Century” (NDU Press, October 2014). Holmes first takes me to task for not responding to the substance of his argument that a fictitious Spanish NDU would have concluded in 1897 that the United States would not build bases and engage in conflict with the Spanish Empire. His larger conclusion is “Never Say Never!” Next, he accuses the NDU report of “cherry picking” its definition of the “String of Pearls” concept, essentially creating a “straw man” and then shooting it down. He prefers the definition laid out in the original Booz Allen Hamilton Report to the Office of Net Assessment in 2004, which hypothesizes that China will form commercial and strategic partnerships in the Indian Ocean to ensure continued access to facilities there to protect China’s overseas shipping and access to energy and raw materials.

I will take a minute to address Holmes’ first point about what a fictitious NDU would have concluded in 1897. First, it is unclear to me that a fictitious Spanish NDU would in fact determine that the United States posed no danger to its empire and posed no chance of engaging in conflict with Spain. Certainly a similar fictitious NDU research team in England would not have arrived at such a rosy conclusion. England and the United States nearly came to blows only two years earlier in 1895 over a boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana, and similar war scares took place throughout the late nineteenth century over border disputes with Canada. The Royal Navy was increasingly concerned about American naval buildup, hence its repeated refusal to allow the United States to unilaterally construct a Panama Canal which would have allowed for easy concentration of American naval power divided between west and east coasts. American naval power was already feeling its way across the Pacific with its Asiatic Squadrons forcing open Japan. Second, Holmes is right that one should “never say never.” But nowhere in the NDU report do we conclude that China will “never set up forward operating bases in the Indian Ocean.” What we argue after an exhaustive analysis is that China is “highly unlikely” to pursue this path. We also conclude that if China does start to venture down this path, we have an understanding of what warning signs would start to emerge and what we should look out for. More on this latter point below.

The heart of our disagreement is what it would take to do the expansive things “String of Pearls” adherents say China is attempting to do in the Indian Ocean. Conceivably the logistics footprint required for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) to militarily dominate the region would be enormous: ordnance storage and distribution; petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) storage and distribution; large hospital and medical facilities; mortuary services; large ship and equipment repair facilities; air traffic control and other air support facilities and operations; and air and missile defenses. Before engaging further on that, Holmes accuses NDU of “cherry picking” the “String of Pearls” definition. He is correct in noting that in one sense part of the original definition by Booz Allen Hamilton was much more restrictive in terms of what China would need to do in order to implement the strategy. Using this limited definition, which argues that China will form closer diplomatic and strategic ties with the countries of the Indian Ocean and invest commercially in the port infrastructure of this region in order to ensure access for its ships transiting through the area, most defense and foreign policy analysts would say that the “String of Pearls” concept is probably a reasonable strategic concept. However, in contrast to what is claimed by Professor Holmes, in fact the Booz Allen Hamilton report also states that China could use “either defensive or offensive tactics” to protect its seaborne oil shipments and suggests that a credible deterrence strategy “would require both robust military capabilities and permission from the host countries to allow it to undertake offensive operations from their territories.” These robust military capabilities and permission from host countries to conduct offensive operations imply that the Chinese would eventually be able to use commercial and military facilities—after years of improving upon the features of the facilities– for major military operations.

Most defense analysts think about the “String of Pearls” as enabling Chinese military operations. Holmes himself refers to this more expansive definition in an earlier Diplomat article where he says that the Chinese might opt into the military use of commercial facilities if the strategic environment warrants it. Unless China is ultimately expected to covertly build up its current access to commercial facilities into facilities that can support combat operations, the “String of Pearls” concept has no sense of urgency to it. Whether right or wrong, most analysts of the India-China strategic competition in the Indian Ocean see the “String of Pearls” in much more expansive terms. What sets the “String of Pearls” argument apart from other types of access concepts, has always been the hidden agenda implied by these activities. Holmes may now be claiming that he adheres to a more limited definition of the “String of Pearls” but there is an entire community of China watchers and defense analysts who have not retreated to this restricted position.

Holmes’ initial critique of the NDU report sidestepped a fundamental conclusion from our analysis—which is that regardless of whether you define the “String of Pearls” in a restrictive or expansive manner, the concept is bankrupt in enabling what the Chinese would need to do to militarily dominate the Indian Ocean. China would need a significant military logistics infrastructure to support PLA Navy major combat operations. Commercial access agreements, a buildup of commercial facilities, and secret access agreements simply do not provide the logistics support China would need to engage in large scale military combat with India. The gradual effort to convert commercial facilities to support large scale military operations would telegraph China’s intentions well in advance. At some point, the Chinese would have to stop relying on secret agreements and a covert buildup and would have to shift to an overt buildup of a full-scale military base or bases in the Indian Ocean. This makes little sense strategically, especially given that the “String of Pearls” sites are all within range of Indian strike aircraft and missiles.


Dr. Christopher D. Yung is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.