China’s rising maritime power is encountering American maritime power along the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that connect China to vital energy resources in the Middle East and Africa. The “String of Pearls” describes the manifestation of China’s rising geopolitical influence through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, develop special diplomatic relationships, and modernize military forces that extend from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Arabian Gulf. A question posed by the “String of Pearls” is the uncertainty of whether China’s growing influence is in accordance with Beijing’s stated policy of “peaceful development,” or if China one day will make a bid for regional primacy. This is a complex strategic situation that could determine the future direction of the China’s relationship with the United States, as well as China’s relationship with neighbors throughout the region. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the “String of Pearls” from within the context of the post-Cold War global security environment and propose informed recommendations for U.S. policy and strategy. Substantive, results-oriented engagement supported by pragmatic military hedging is the best strategy to influence and encourage China to participate in the international community as a responsible stakeholder. Bold leadership and prudent foresight will enable the United States and China to reap the rewards of strategic cooperation and avert the calamity of a hostile confrontation. Following this introduction, the second section defines the “String of Pearls,” explains the motivation behind it, and describes how it relates to China’s evolving national strategy. The author analyzes the “String of Pearls” in depth in Section III. He first assesses China’s grand strategy of “peaceful development” in the context of the global security environment and the implications for U.S. foreign policy. The section examines regional security challenges that the “String of Pearls” could present to the United States. Specific areas of concern include competition for regional influence, China’s relationship with rogue states, and how modernization efforts of the People’ Liberation Army (PLA), in particular the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN), affect the dynamics of the “String of Pearls.” Section IV makes broad recommendations for implementing this pragmatic strategy with respect to the military instrument of power. The author addresses the adequacy of U.S. global posture, to include maritime and aerospace forces. He questions U.S. force structure and laydown with respect to meeting the challenges of a rising China in the post-Cold War world order. Finally, he proposes recommendations with respect to regional security cooperation and military-to-military programs, including proposals for regional security cooperation and military-to-military programs with China. This paper examines the “String of Pearls” as an evolving maritime component of China’s grand national strategy and proposes a corresponding U.S. strategy in the context of U.S.-China relations in the global security environment. The “String of Pearls” is more than a naval or military strategy. It also is more than a regional strategy. It is a manifestation of China’s ambition to attain great power status and secure a self-determined, peaceful, and prosperous future. For the United States, a rising China presents great opportunity, but this opportunity is fraught with potential risks. With bold leadership and prudent foresight, the United States and China can reap the rewards of strategic cooperation and avert the calamity of a hostile confrontation.
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