The best way to get success in strategy is through success. An historical case study was General Douglas MacArthur’s “island hopping” strategy in the Pacific during World War II. It involved capturing an island, building a base there and moving on toward the prime target.
China seems to be copying this strategy in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. In the former, it is seeking to contain India by forging alliances with island nations including the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles and building a “string of pearls” of military bases from East Africa to Pakistan.
The strategy is designed to curtail Indian influence in the region so China, with the Americans distracted in the Middle East, can have a free run in other parts of Asia and across the Pacific Ocean but also to encroach upon African countries that welcome its yuan diplomacy — developmental and industrial support with no strings attached.
China has never announced this strategy publicly. A recent statement from the Chinese military that it’s considering an offer from the Seychelles to host a Chinese naval base confirms that the strategy exists however.
Furthermore, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that it isn’t interested in building military bases in other places.
The Chinese “island hopping” strategy defies historical precedent and differs from the strategies of other and past great powers in that they were usually explicit about their intentions. China apparently believes that concealing its motives best serves its interests.
An increased Chinese presence across the Indian Ocean poses a challenge to India as it is trying to project itself as a great power beyond South Asia. The two Asian giants are vying for economic opportunities and international recognition. Renewed American engagement, which is likely to follow military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, could prove an obstacle to China’s designs and cause it to intensify its efforts now.
As the United States court nations ranging from Australia to Indonesia to Vietnam, the Chinese imperative to erect naval bases in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific will only seem more pressing.