Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Command, told a conference in Honolulu last week that the United States must ‘get China right’, as the return of this great power promises to pose ‘the great challenge of the 21st century’. If Washington fails to get China right, the liberal Asian order over which the United States has presided since 1945 may crumble, yielding to something less conducive to regional security and prosperity. The rise of China, then, is one topic on which scholarship directly influences practical statesmanship. And China polarizes the academy.

You’ve heard the arguments from protagonists on both sides. Shackled by its continental past, China stands little chance of becoming a great sea power. Its neophyte fleet can’t compete with a US Navy that has ruled the waves for nearly seven decades. Any Chinese threat is a figment of American imaginations, or perhaps whipped up cynically to justify pricey new weaponry. Or, at the opposite extreme, China has already locked in its naval ascent, perfecting imaginative new technologies like the world’s first antiship ballistic missile while progressing rapidly toward top-end capabilities like aircraft carriers.

Such partisanship among China scholars could affix blinkers to US strategy in Asia, preventing US leaders from getting China right. A subset of the larger debate over Chinese sea power is Beijing’s supposed quest for a ‘string of pearls’, or network of Indian Ocean naval bases. The term originated in a classified Booz Allen study and was popularized by the Washington Times in 2005. It almost instantly found its way into the strategic discourse over Chinese maritime strategy in South Asia. Indian officials and naval officers leapt at it, deciphering Beijing’s efforts to develop harbours such as Gwadar, in western Pakistan, as the seaward component of a strategy intended to encircle and fetter India.

If the pendulum swung to one extreme in the early going, it has lurched to the other in recent years. Few Indian Ocean specialists still view the string of pearls as a nascent base network in the Mahanian sense. (Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan depicted overseas naval stations as one of three ‘pillars’ on which sea power rested, beseeching would-be sea powers to obtain bases to support the voyages of steam-driven merchantmen and warships.) They are more apt to scoff at the term. So fierce was the backlash that Booz Allen undertook a new study of the concept in 2009, in an apparent effort to distance the firm from its own past work. Scales, it seems, fell from analysts’ eyes.

Today, the conventional wisdom seems to be that China will settle for access to ‘places, not bases’ in the Indian Ocean. If so, Beijing is negotiating agreements that grant Chinese vessels the right to call at ports like Gwadar, Hambantota, and Chittagong to rest, refuel, and perhaps refit. China entertains little desire for a wholly-owned base network comparable to the outposts in Japan, Guam, Hawaii, and elsewhere that support the US forward presence in the Western Pacific. Purveyors of this view use Yokosuka and comparable installations as their standard. Since it remains doubtful that Beijing will construct full-fledged installations, they conclude, a Chinese presence in South Asia presents little cause for concern.

We ourselves have long criticized the notion of a full-blown string of pearls, in part because we see little evidence of a Chinese master strategy and in part because projects like Gwadar fail to measure up by the Mahanian standards of geographic position (proximity to important sea lanes), strength (or defensibility), and resources (to support visiting ships and the port itself). At the same time, we hold out the possibility that China will try to forge a permanent Mahanian base network should the need arise. Our best advice is to keep an open mind, shunning fixed, black or white answers to the question of whether Beijing covets a string of pearls. As yet, we’ve seen no need to reconsider this outlook.

In all likelihood, Chinese leaders are simply creating options for themselves—as prudent leaders do. Having laid the groundwork for a more muscular naval presence, they can upgrade that presence into Yokosuka-style bases should conditions warrant—say, if India or the United States appears likely to mount a distant blockade of Chinese merchant shipping, holding Chinese economic interests hostage in times of strife. If the Indian Ocean strategic environment remains nonthreatening, on the other hand, Beijing can spare itself the expense and hassle of maintaining such facilities. Why not hedge? Some metrics and caveats to bear in mind when evaluating Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean:

·         Nations splice together base networks through happenstance as much as deliberate policy.

Wolfgang Wegener, an admiral in the German navy during World War I, admired Great Britain for staying on the strategic offensive for centuries and for amassing a world-spanning empire in the process. But this was more a matter of staying on the lookout for opportunities to acquire new colonial possessions than of pursuing some coherent, single-minded plan to construct a British Empire. As one student of British history put it cheekily, London assembled its empire, history’s greatest string of pearls, in ‘a fit of absentmindedness’. China could follow suit.

Or what if this were 1897, and foreign observers were debating whether the United States entertained conscious plans for a string of pearls? The question may have elicited giggles in 1897—but not a year later. Mahan had lobbied tirelessly for island outposts in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and for the annexation of Hawaii, but he was unable to sway public policy despite the popularity of his books. Only the Spanish-American War of 1898 prompted the United States to annex Hawaii, along with Spanish imperial holdings like the Philippine Islands. So startling was this departure that one distinguished historian termed it a ‘great aberration’ from US diplomatic traditions. Similarly, some black swan could shunt Beijing onto a radically different trajectory in South Asia.

·         Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

That Western observers can’t detect a master design governing Chinese naval strategy in the Indian Ocean, including Beijing’s pursuit of naval stations, doesn’t mean that no such design exists. Again, our best guess is that China is laying the foundations for a hypothetical build-up of hard naval power while debating the wisdom of such an expensive, arduous, potentially hazardous course of action. But that remains a guess. A wait-and-see attitude toward Chinese plans represents the best attitude, simply because there are limits to what we know.

Plans and strategies, furthermore, can take on a life of their own. In Mahan's time, arguments that the Philippines furnished a steppingstone to the China market were a product of US power and purpose fulfilled through historical accident. The more territory the United States acquired and the more capable it became, the more expansive its vision of its purposes in the world. A ‘want’ became a ‘need’, even though objectively China never became an important market for American products until long after Mahan’s day. The same could happen to China. Chinese leaders too may conclude that sea power is essential to protect growing maritime interests—and that they need places or even comprehensive bases.

·         What constitutes an adequate presence from the Chinese standpoint?

The US base network in the Pacific Ocean is a suspect yardstick for Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean. First, there’s no single paradigm of a US base. American ‘pearls’ differ sharply, ranging from high-end stations at Guam or Pearl Harbor today back to the Cold War submarine base at Holy Loch, Scotland. The Holy Loch base amounted to little more than a submarine tender anchored in the harbour to service ballistic-missile submarines between patrols. Its footprint was exceedingly light.

Second, some of the criticisms we have levelled at nascent Chinese bases (or places, or whatever) apply to US bases as well, in particular those in the Japanese archipelago. Whether these facilities are fortified sufficiently to withstand Chinese ballistic-missile strikes is dubious, for instance. If a base must meet the Mahanian standard—stringently construed—in order to qualify as a ‘pearl’, then how many installations around the world qualify? Few. And of those few, one—Sanya, the new submarine base on Hainan Island—is in Chinese hands.

Adequacy, then, is in the eyes of the beholder. US analysts are consistently wrong when they superimpose American requirements and ways of thinking on Chinese thinkers who interpret their surroundings quite differently than Washington might, and thus take a different approach to managing those surroundings. Repeated surprises have been the result.

A parting word: Adm. Willard also told the conference attendees in Honolulu that the port facilities under development in the Indian Ocean boast infrastructure that is ‘clearly adequate’ for military use should Beijing see the need. If nothing else, this suggests that Beijing cares little about whether Westerners think a string of pearls makes sense. It will draw its own conclusions—and tend to its own interests as it understands them.

 James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College, where Yoshihara has been named Van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies. The views voiced here are theirs alone.