String of Pearls

March 28, 2012 --



The American and Chinese flags flying near the Capitol building during the Chinese president's recent visit. Source: International Business Times

Over the past ten years, China’s greatest friends have been the war in Afghanistan, the great recession, and Kim Kardashian. China has taken advantage of American media’s preoccupancy with topics like these and quietly positioned itself to be increasingly powerful, from mainland China to the Persian Gulf. Through strategic alliances and treaties, China’s “String of Pearls” has created a presence in South and Southeastern Asia that will be a critical meeting point for America and China for years to come. America, on the other hand, has been left scrambling to balance China’s efforts and to maintain the status quo.

What is the “String of Pearls?” It is a series of harbors and safe points that China has created stretching from the mainland into the Middle East with the declared purpose of securing an oil supply.  This includes harbors in strategic places such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Strait of Malacca, and Maldives, among others. Chinese presence in these areas could cause problems economically and militarily for the United States.

Economically, China is a major competitor for fossil fuels. As China’s economy continues to grow, their need for fossil fuels will increase also. Their demand for oil will further increase the price of oil, and many scholars blame this rising Chinese demand for the rise in gas prices over the past several years. Also, with these harbors in strategic locations, blockades would be a viable option for China, allowing them to block some of the most important waterways in the world. Militarily, the String of Pearls represents China expanding its power projection and increasing its ability to maintain a formidable military presence in the East.

America has not ignored China’s expansion in the region. The U.S. has attempted to offset China’s jockeying for power in two primary ways. First, important diplomats have recently focused on Southeast Asia. President Obama’s trip to meet with ASEAN leaders last fall as well as Secretary Clinton’s trips to countries in the region showed a definite interest there. Visits and promises of future aid to Southeast Asian countries that America has typically overlooked, like Myanmar, show that America wants to maintain its spot in the hearts of these countries.  Militarily, America has been boosting its power in Southeast Asia in several ways.  In an unprecedented move, Australia and America have initiated talks of a permanent U.S. military base in Australia. A base in Northern Australia would put American troops closer to Southeast Asia and improve military capability. In another surprising move, the United States and the Philippines have recently initiated talks to allow the American military to return for the first time in nearly twenty years.

With both China and the United States vying for power in this part of the world, what policy should America adopt? Two major options stand out to maintain a peaceful relationship: containment or engagement.

American foreign policy in the Cold War focused on the idea of containment. Essentially, the plan was to build a wall of alliances around the U.S.S.R. and not to allow Soviet expansion past those lines. America is familiar with this practice and has a good start with China, given its alliances with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and India. Pursuing this strategy would require closer ties with more Southeastern countries, but it could be done. Arguments against this policy maintain that the Cold War was an ineffective, expensive, and drawn out event.

Engaging China would require creating stabilizing treaties and clearly defined agreements. This policy focuses on creating good relations, with the underlying theme of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Proponents of this policy claim that close ties would benefit both countries and avoid war. However, those who follow the realist school of thought argue that these relationships and treaties are superficial and do not ensure any meaningful security.

The United States is at an important crossroads: whether the United States pursues a policy of containment, engagement, or another potential policy will affect international relations for generations to come. How America responds to the String of Pearls will not only affect U.S.-China relations but will shape the world’s future.


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