China’s port investment spree in Indian Ocean countries has triggered a debate about what it might mean for Indian security. The prevailing Indian view is that it’s a ‘string of pearls’ to encircle India. The concern intensified last month with the announcement by President Xi Jinping of a $45-billion package for Pakistan to build a road network from (Pakistan-Administered) Kashmir to Gwadar port.

    When Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits China this week, his focus is on trade and the border. It’s opportune now to consider the connection between tensions at the border, suspicion about newly-built ports, and lagging bilateral trade and investment. These elements are joined at the hip, sinking and rising together. If one element is afflicted by categorically negative perception, the entire set can sink.

    This visit can shift the current readiness for high seas confrontation to the groundwork for business integration. With the unveiling this year of ‘One Belt, One Road’, an Eurasian integration plan that will be the Xi administration’s signature international initiative, this is the time for perception and policy to be reimagined and reconfigured.

    ‘One Belt, One Road’ is composed of a Silk Road Economic Belt linking interior China to Central Europe through a trade corridor via Central Asia and Russia, and the Maritime Silk Road connecting coastal China to the Mediterranean by routes across the Indian Ocean and South-east Asia. The Indian Ocean is a main node in this sprawling commercial network.

    The initiative will be more than infrastructure. It will flood the region with low-cost financing and engineering expertise and facilitate the standardization of trade and finance. China will be the primary project financier, having established the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank that is to supplant the Japan/US-led Asian Development Bank, and has pledged an initial $40 billion of investments through the Silk Road Fund.

    China’s commercial intent goes against the view of Indian strategists who anticipate in the ‘string of pearls’, a diabolical Chinese strategy manifested in port investments in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Mauritius, and, most saliently, at Gwadar in Pakistan. These security strategists see a collective military menace sponsored by the Chinese government.

    So, will the ‘string of pearls’ wrap around India as the strategists fear? Or will it be a piece of the infrastructure panoply of ‘One Belt, One Road’? The answer is swayed by the context of border tensions. As long as military activity near India’s borders is trumped with alarm, it’s rational for Indians to be concerned about encirclement through infrastructure-construction despite China’s undoubted commercial motive.

   However, the border dispute is clouded by fog and the cause of tensions can be based on flimsy misperception. Reports in India of border incursions by China have unsettled bilateral relations. But the border is not demarcated by agreement. Instead there are ‘lines of perception’ asserted by each side. At some sections the lines of perception overlap, forming in between a stand-off space as wide as 10km. A patrol by one side can be an incursion across the other’s line, and yet remain inside the ambit of one’s own territory.

    The current picture is of a sinister China at the border and on the littoral. But visualize a completely different picture. Imagine instead India as ambitiously seeking to become integrated into the ‘string of pearls’. This is not a stretch of the imagination as a 8Chinese-built port was supposed to have been built in Kerala in 2006. With state government backing and a Chinese contractor lined up, port construction was set to commence. Considering the state government’s support, this would not have been the case of another pearl slipped across the string. However, Delhi intervened and disallowed the investment, citing national security risk.

    If the project had been realized, continue imagining a map of Chinese-built ports in the Indian Ocean. With a pearl dotting Kerala, whatever pattern emerges isn’t a string. Instead the ports across the map look like scattered loose pearls.

    Indians felt provoked in November 2014 when a Chinese submarine docked in Sri Lanka. But it is anxiety that grew after an imaginary string emerged from investment prohibition by the last administration.

    It is within Delhi’s control to cut this string, disperse the pearls, and accordingly change perception.

    On this trip, Narendra Modi wants to discuss opening the door to Chinese investment and Indian participation in ‘One Belt, One Road’. With new imagination comes an inversion in thinking. India will see unstrung, loose pearls for the taking.