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Dattatreaya Nimbalkar asked: Why has India's ‘necklace of diamonds’ strategy in the Indian Ocean Region not been as successful compared to China's 'string of pearls’ strategy?

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  • Abhay Kumar Singh replies: At the core of this question lies conceptual confusion between key phrases used to describe strategic policies pronounced or promulgated by the government and lexicons used by strategic experts and commentators in interpreting official policies. For example, phrases such as the US ‘Pivot to Asia’, China’s ‘Far Sea Defence’ strategy and ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, India’s Look East/Act East Policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) doctrine, etc., have been officially announced/promulgated to describe specific policies/strategies of the respective governments. However, some popular phrases in strategic discourse such as China’s ‘string of pearls’ in the Indian Ocean or ‘Salami Slicing’ strategy in the South China Sea or India’s ‘necklace of diamonds’ strategy are not officially promulgated strategies of the government, but these are the interpretation of respective government policies by commentators.

    In 2004, US defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, in a report titled ‘Energy Futures in Asia’, had used the term “String of Pearls” to describe China’s strategy to expand its naval presence throughout the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) through built-up of civil maritime infrastructure. Since then, there has been much speculation and debate surrounding the validity, extent and potential intentions behind the concept. At the same time, Chinese officials have consistently denounced “the so called ‘string of pearls’ construct” as a motivated distortion of their regular economic engagements.

    The phrase ‘necklace of diamonds’ was first mentioned by India’s former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh while speaking at a think tank in August 2011 on ‘India’s Regional Strategic Priorities’. He had argued that “India is doing everything it is supposed to do in terms of protecting its interests. To the doctrine of the String of Pearls, India has its own doctrine, the Necklace of Diamonds. Just as the Chinese are building port facilities, we are tying up naval cooperation with almost all the major powers of the Indian Ocean region.” Even though commentators often use ‘necklace of diamonds’ to describe India’s strategic approach to counter China’s growing influence in the IOR, it has not found any mention in the Government of India’s official discourse.

    That being said, the geopolitical competition for strategic influence in the Indo-Pacific region between India and China has progressively been intensifying. India’s ‘Act East’ policy and the Chinese efforts to extend its strategic influence in the IOR have brought pressure and influence on each other’s traditional sphere of strategic interest. As a result, the Indian Ocean has emerged as a key intersection zone of Indian and Chinese strategic interests.

    It would be pertinent to highlight that similar to concern in India about China’s rising influence in the IOR, Chinese commentators too remain wary of India’s growing strategic engagement in the Chinese neighbourhood and India’s ability to limit Chinese outreach in the IOR. The Annual Report on the Development of the Indian Ocean Region (2016) published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences had argued that India’s proactive diplomacy “has not only established its dominance in the region which it considers as its exclusive sphere of influence but also has constrained freedom of action of external powers including China.”

    In my view, it is too early to make a definitive assessment about a relative measure of success or lack of success of policies employed by either India or China in this ensuing competitive dynamics.  

    Posted on March 16, 2021

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.