The Communist Chinese government is rapidly expanding its military reach and political power through the acquisition of control over foreign ports in key strategic locations along major commercial shipping lanes through its “Belt and Road” initiative.
While the Chinese government has regularly touted its “Belt and Road” initiative as a means to bring economic development and infrastructure to developing countries, a report released by the American research non-profit organization C4ADS found that, contrary to China’s public assurances, “Chinese analysts unofficially discussing port investments routinely prioritize China’s national security interests over the objective of mutually beneficial economic development, contradicting the position of official policy documents.”
“The economics of the deals are questionable, political control is nearly absolute, and one of the main drivers is to give the Chinese navy the possibility of far-reaching logistical support under the cover of seemingly innocuous commercial operations,” wrote Keith Johnson and Dan De Luce for Foreign Policy magazine.
Devin Thorne, one of the report’s co-authors, claimed “The trends across the ports we looked at seem to indicate that China is not upholding a ‘win-win’ idea, but is pursuing an ulterior motive.”
Chinese state-owned corporations have acquired control of ports in Djibouti (directly adjacent to a major American naval base), Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Strait of Malacca, and Australia.
“It looks like coaling stations for the Dutch or British Empire, the way they set these up,” said a former officer who served in the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
While its effort to acquire territory in the disputed South China Sea has been robust, China’s plan to acquire control over shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean have been more subtle. Rather than rely on direct military force, China has used state-owned corporations to broker one-sided deals granting the Communist government direct control over port operations – in effect, acquiring control over critical foreign infrastructure without firing a shot.
The report, citing a Chinese analyst, described the strategy as a “first civilian, later military” approach.
“For any military, it’s easier to respond to overt aggression,” said Evan Medeiros, who oversaw Asia policy in the Obama administration and now works for the Eurasia Group. “It’s harder to mobilize national resources, it’s harder to mobilize allies and partners, when there is uncertainty about the nature of the challenge.”
While it will take several years for the Chinese military to be capable of fully utilizing all of the ports “the legal framework has been laid,” Thorne noted, as Chinese law requires all commercial vessels be built to military standards and all Chinese transportation firms are required to support military missions when called on.
Despite Medeiros’ suggestion that the nature of the challenge was uncertain, reports warning of China’s intention to use state-owned corporations to expand its military power are nothing new.