By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020—This is part two of our series exploring Beijing’s assault on sealanes and strategic ports around the world. Part one discussed the PRC threat to vital shipping lanes. In this issue, we focus on the implications of the PRC’s many tendrils in some of the world’s most strategic ports.
A Port Push
According to an analysis published by the Economist, PRC-backed firms have a stake in 61 port terminals around the world and manage at least 36 ports in 18 countries—most in strategically positioned locales. These include Sri Lanka, Greece, Djibouti, Spain, Belgium, France, Italy, Turkey’s Bosporus Strait, Malta, Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, Australia’s Darwin Port and Cambodia.
“China also has port investments in the Western Hemisphere,” according to Carolyn Bartholomew, chair of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. She notes that a Hong Kong-based firm operates ports on either side of the Panama Canal, that PRC-backed firms have investments in the ports of Los Angeles and Seattle, and that PRC-backed firms have a stake in the firm that owns container terminals in Miami and Houston. “Nearly two-thirds of global container traffic flows through Chinese-owned or invested ports,” she concludes.
In addition, China recently surged 300 civilian fishing vessels into and around Ecuadoran waters—plundering and despoiling the area in the process. (Not only is this illegal; it also provides a glimpse of how the PRC might use its giant fleet of civilian trawlers to disguise a military move against Taiwan.)
Finally, China is eyeing the Arctic. The reason? The fabled Northwest Passage, once frozen most of the year, is thawing for longer stretches of time. This will cut some 4,000 nautical miles off a trip from Europe to Asia, which explains why Beijing wants a slice of the Arctic pie. Thus, as CNBC reports, Beijing is buying its way into the Arctic with financing and development projects in several Arctic states. China has unveiled plans for a “Polar Silk Road development initiative.” Chinese vessels have begun transiting Arctic passageways. And China is building heavy-duty icebreakers for use in the Arctic. Beijing justifies its unwelcome appearance in the region by calling itself a “near Arctic state.” (By that logic, the United States is a near Asian state.) In any event, it doesn’t take a Kissinger to conclude that Beijing wants to push its way into the Arctic in order to challenge its main rival economically, commercially and militarily.
There are obvious military implications to Beijing’s growing presence in strategic ports.
Chinese port development and management projects in Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Greece, for instance, “have been followed by Chinese naval deployments,” as NPR reports.
Importantly, Djibouti—located at the meeting place of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa—is a key hub of counter-terror and counter-piracy operations for the U.S. and its allies. Sri Lanka is adjacent to India and serves as a commanding position midway between the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. Gwadar Port in southwest Pakistan is near the entrance of the Persian Gulf. As CSIS notes Beijing’s involvement in Gwadar Port raises the prospect of PRC military use of the port to spur “China’s efforts to expand its maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific region.” Greek ports have long been key to control over Mediterranean sealanes.
Maritime experts worry that a PRC port project in Cambodia could be laying the groundwork for a PRC naval base.
Beijing could leverage its state-owned companies at any of these ports as fronts for its military, use the ports to carry out Trojan Horse attacks, or simply muscle out U.S. and allied navies. Indeed, given that a Chinese company will start managing Haifa Port in Israel next year, the U.S. may be forced to phase out Sixth Fleet visits there. Similarly, U.S. Marines base and rotate through Darwin Port in Australia. Wary of the security implications of the PRC toehold there, Australian lawmakers may nationalize the port and expel the Chinese.
Moreover, Bartholomew notes that “China could use its control over…ports to hinder trade access to other countries. Beijing could provide Chinese vessels preferential berthing rights, potentially leading to delays for U.S. companies getting goods in and out of Chinese-invested or owned ports.” As we have learned during the Pandemic of 2020, even goods and materials that have seemingly nothing to do with national security—facemasks, gloves, test kits—are critical to America’s health, especially in a time of crisis.
Speaking of the Pandemic of 2020, if there’s a silver lining to COVID19, it’s that it a) exposed the true nature of the Xi Jinping regime and b) reminded America and its partners of the many resources they collectively possess.
For example, the U.S. is launching an Economic Prosperity Network (EPN) comprised of trusted partners committed to “integrity, accountability, transparency, reciprocity, respect for rule of law, respect for property of all kinds, respect for sovereignty of nations and respect for basic human rights,” as the State Department reported in mid-2020. The EPN and related efforts aim to “restructure…supply chains to prevent something like this from ever happening again,” according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The U.S., Australia, Colombia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam are exploring how to build this uncompromised supply chain.
In a similar vein, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is calling on the D10—an informal partnership of 10 democracies enfolding the Group of Seven industrialized democracies plus Australia, South Korea and India—to pool their technological resources, build on their shared values and harness their interoperability to create a clean and uncompromised 5G network. Likewise, Japanese and Australian officials have proposed expanding the membership and mission of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (enfolding the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) by adding Japan and cooperating on production of strategically critical materials.
These efforts point the way to a practical, durable solution to the challenge posed by China’s port-buying spree: Rather than retreating into protectionism (as America and the rest of the world did in the decades before World War II) or using foreign aid to try to check and match a communist behemoth’s expansion (as America and Western Europe did in the decades after World War II), the U.S. and its allies could work together to build a “clean” port-management and port-development network.
Think about it: The overlapping memberships of the emerging D10-Five Eyes-EPN partnership include the U.S., Japan, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, Australia, Colombia, India, New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. This partnership of partnerships enfolds the strongest maritime nations, largest economies, most technologically advanced militaries, and some of the most strategically positioned ports on the globe. Together, they can expose, counter and blunt China’s Trojan Horse takeover of the world’s ports.
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