The String of Pearls: China, Kenya, and Precarious Cultures

Posted on June 15, 2011

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I think I may have said it in a post or two before this, but I’m obsessed with the idea of going out to the Kenyan coast and getting onto the Indian Ocean. Don’t ask me what it is, because I don’t yet have the best reason, but the thought of going out on a dhow and hauling on a sail line is just quite appealing to me. I think it ties in with an old dream: for many years I wanted to just take some time off after college and work on a freighter. Sloshing slowly from one coast to another, few people in sight and most who are incapable of speaking your language—some isolation, some time, some insanity, some perspective. It’d probably get me into shape as well. But I think it’s more the isolation, the meditation, the empty blueness and the precarious nature of such a life that appeals to me. So how much more appealing on a smaller boat, with a smaller crew, in a land that is, to me, far stranger?

But the culture of the coast here fascinates me as well. There’s a rich history of Arab and Indian influence, and you can see it in the faces of those who come into the city from Mombasa or above, hear it in their loan words, taste it in their food. All the better to see it at the source, to walk down the shores that were once the crossroads of the world, one of the hubs of pre-modern globalization. It’s a rich history, dense and full of intrigue and interest for me.

It was the perfect confluence of obsessions, then, when over lunch recently Ben told me of a tiny Arab village on the coast to the north. He tells me this place is one of the last in Kenya to still use dhows, that there is no car in the region save for the local police office’s Jeep. The population is entirely unique in its culture, its dialect of Swahili, and its relationship to the sea and their Arab roots. Amazing. Let’s throw caution and self-reflection to the wind, I have to see this place, regardless of what my presence would mean. Selfish, I know, but I lust.

I asked Ben how he know of this place. He told me he’d heard that the Chinese had shown an interest in the town. Apparently it’s in a strategic location to build a deepwater port.

At first that sounds somewhat inconspicuous—more jobs for the people in the region, maybe some tourism dollars and industry into the town. Precarious for the locals, yes, and for the culture, but perhaps overall beneficial and manageable. But it’s a bit more sinister than all that.

The Chinese have a strategy of late called the String of Pearls. In this strategy, they build deepwater ports in countries throughout the Indian Ocean, from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, to Indonesia, and straight to China. The ports bring great benefit to the countries that host them, partially in raw income, and partially in Chinese favor. And, conveniently for the Chinese, they just happen to help them bypass traditional shipping routes, while holding traditional seafaring choke points like the Straits of Hormuz or Malacca. If ever the West chooses to try to limit Chinese shipping along traditional lines, they have the Pearls. If ever the Chinese choose to deny access to the West, or perhaps to India, it’s easy enough along these choke points, and even easier with the favor of the locals the ports gained for them. A clever enough strategy, and one that has India and a few folks in America who concern themselves with such things just sweating bullets.

Two additional tricks in this case: One might recall the case of Gwadar in Pakistan, a small city on the southern coast of Balochistan Province, and once the site of a rich and unique culture. After the establishment of a Chinese oil choke point via a Pearl deepwater port in the city, not only did the region become more economically beholden to Chinese interests (not a great thing in that region for the U.S.), but its culture started to erode with an influx of new workers, with the strain of immigration and rapid development. There’s nothing to obliterate one of the remaining cultural gems of the world like unmitigated progress.

Of course that’s not to malign progress—just to say that such forms of development ought to be handled with care and caution over time.

And the second trick: the port is meant to be a pipeline for easy Chinese access to the market for soon-to-be newly independent South Sudan’s oil. Afraid to say they’ve jumped America on this one. And with our concern for oil security, and with the precarious position of South Sudan in relation to its bullying counterpart, there’s a huge chance here that one of the few remaining oil hot spots, not to mention a new nation with some potential, will fall squarely into the grand strategy of China, and bypass the not-so-grand strategy of America.

Rarely does one see such a confluence of the geopolitical and economic interests of the superpower that is America, and the cultural concerns of a native population. It irks me then that there is such silence on the matter, that towns like this can be eaten so blithely, without notice, when it’s only noticing them and working in the name of cultural preservation, egged on by economic and political consideration, that can save all three.

But maybe I’m just sour about the prospect of losing a potential sightseeing locale.

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