One of China’s strengths – as an authoritarian communist state – is its ability to wield a whole-of-nation approach to security, diplomatic and economic affairs around the globe.
This is seen clearly in its efforts to develop port infrastructure and to carve out opportunities for naval bases in territories far from home. The region most talked about is the Indian Ocean, with China investing in commercial ports in places such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The threat of a “string of pearls” – a network of Chinese-controlled facilities ringing the perimeter of the Indian Ocean that can be utilized by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – has been discussed for years, but is yet to fructify. Gwadar in Pakistan is routinely cited as a potential base for the PLA Navy (PLAN), but this is yet to occur.
In fact, China’s greatest progress has been in Djibouti, with the PLA opening its first overseas military base on 1 August 2017. China did so ostensibly to support its naval counter-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden, which has had a continuous presence there since the end of 2008. The incidence of piracy near the Horn of Africa has ebbed to virtually nil, but there are no signs of China withdrawing its naval presence. This fact by itself indicates that the PLA has ulterior motives for maintaining a presence there.
China’s Djiboutian base is sited just 15 minutes away from Camp Lemonnier, the USA’s largest military facility on the African continent. The Chinese-owned Doraleh commercial port allows PLAN vessels to dock, and the PLA has also been extending the piers at its own base to accommodate larger warships.
However, the global hotspot for piracy is now the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, an area that accounted for 43% of global piracy in the first quarter of 2021. China is reportedly considering building a new port for Senegal, West Africa (ostensibly to assist the Senegal Navy), which would give the PLAN convenient access to West Africa and the South Atlantic.
China has to tread warily, though, as it knows there will be significant pushback if it creates obvious military bases in sensitive regions of the world. It therefore prefers to hide behind commercial investments and developments to camouflage its martial intentions.
The USA, in its “Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” released on 9 April, noted: “Beijing is increasingly combining its growing military power with its economic, technological and diplomatic clout to preserve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), secure what it views as its territory and regional preeminence, and pursue international cooperation at Washington’s expense.”
This ability to centrally pull the levers of influence is at the heart of Chairman Xi Jinping’s blue-ribbon Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to which more than 60 countries have already signed up. Of course, the BRI is a broad directive rather than a precise strategy featuring key milestones mapped out in advance. The aim is for Chinese entities to form partnerships with foreign players to advance China’s strategic interests, and the ambiguous concept remains beneficially flexible.
The US intelligence community reported: “Beijing will continue to promote the Belt and Road Initiative to expand China’s economic, political and military presence abroad, while trying to reduce waste and exploitative practices, which have led to international criticism.
China will try to increase its influence using ‘vaccine diplomacy’, giving countries favored access to the COVID-19 vaccines it is developing. China also will promote new international norms for technology and human rights, emphasizing state sovereignty and political stability over individual rights.”
Furthermore, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report entitled “Leaping across the Oceans: The Port Operators behind China’s Naval Expansion” in February 2021.
Its authors, Charlie Lyons Jones and Raphael Veit, pointed out: “A lesser studied aspect of the BRI is its connection to the PLA. What’s likely to emerge from COVID-19 is a pared-down, more focused BRI. Future projects, and those that remain, are likely to be more strategically targeted and financially viable. The BRI that evolves out of this new focus will be geared towards supporting PLA operations and objectives, denying adversaries the ability to project military power, or building significant strategic influence.”
Lyons Jones and Veit continued, “Refocusing the BRI in this way would require companies from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to position themselves as better able and more willing to support Beijing’s strategic interests, which would probably involve tighter collaboration with the CCP.”
It was way back in 2013, in a speech to the Indonesian parliament, that Xi first floated the idea of a Maritime Silk Road (MSR) as part of the BRI. This was just a year after Xi grabbed the CCP’s reins. The MSR was intended to connect China with Europe and the rest of Asia, though by 2015 it had expanded to the South Pacific too.
The MSR encompasses not just hard infrastructure such as ports, roads, airports, communications networks and railways, but also trade, investment agreements, tourism, foreign aid and training. The expansion and evolution of the MSR has been rather ad hoc, a broad web that gradually spreads farther out, all connected digitally with Chinese companies and technologies at its core. Indeed, the MSR is allied with the Information Silk Road that Xi promulgated in March 2015.
China still has an appetite to prosecute new investments in areas such as ports, but greater foreign awareness and the impact of COVID-19 has slowed this. Against a backdrop of stiffening strategic competition between China and the USA, Beijing has faced stiffer pushback as more nations recognize Xi’s malevolent ambitions. There is greater awareness of security and political risks too, as Beijing leans on or interferes with smaller nations and tramples roughshod over others’ concerns or principles.
The most important point to reiterate is that the BRI and MSR are not benevolent concepts, but are intended solely to advance Chinese interests. How does this work in practice?
Well, the CCP has full influence over any Chinese business – whether state-owned enterprises (SOE) or privately owned. Directives such as Opinions Concerning Strengthening New Era United Front Work in the Private Economy place additional pressure on private businesses to comply with central government demands. Likewise, the 2017 National Intelligence Law forces all businesses to comply with government requests for data.
Obviously, having a global network of ports, along with road and rail connections, is of benefit to China. Not only does it create jobs for Chinese workers, but it gains a web of friendly ports by which it can promote its own products and limit access to those of competitors. It all contributes to Sinocentric economies overseas, where host nations become increasingly reliant on China and are pulled into its orbit. Controlling supply chains gives China great leverage.
The top ten ports worldwide include seven in China. While it is not uncommon for large international operators to run multiple ports around the globe, China is different. This is because its operations go far beyond mere commercial activities, for security and geopolitics are part of the calculus as Beijing seeks to be a preeminent global power. The PLA and its commentators use the term “strategic strongpoint” for facilities such as overseas ports, rather than the more explicit descriptor “overseas military base”.
To promote its “strategic strongpoints”, China emphasizes its ability to bring security and products to host nations. The greater presence of Chinese businessmen and citizens in far-flung places also gives Beijing grounds to boost its military presence to protect them. China sees the Malacca Strait chokepoint as incredibly vulnerable, through which some 80% of Chinese sea trade passes. Beijing is leery of the USA blockading it during a conflict to bring China to its knees.
The US Annual Threat Assessment added, “We expect the PLA to continue pursuing overseas military installations and access agreements to enhance its ability to project power and protect Chinese interests abroad.”
China’s acquisition of port holdings has been quite erratic, but it is beginning to show more coordination. Key state-owned players are COSCO (13 overseas ports, including Piraeus in Greece, Abu Dhabi, Zeebrugge in Belgium, and Valencia in Spain), China Merchants (seven foreign ports, including Doraleh in Djibouti, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka) Hutchison, along with a string of subsidiaries such as Terminal Link.
COSCO operates more than 460 large container vessels. It is a central-level SOE, meaning it is critical to the CCP and has party committee members embedded in its management structure. Indeed, approximately a third of COSCO’s 111,397 employees are party members.
But how could such organizations be weaponized by the PLA?
The ASPI report remarked: “In a confrontation between the PRC and another nation, SOEs could be called upon to assist in deniable operations, support the PLA Navy and, potentially, limit access to overseas ports in which the SOEs operate. Political influence operations and active measures campaigns would increase in frequency and intensity in the months prior to the outbreak of war, severely interfering with the deliberations of the political leaders of countries hosting PRC-controlled port facilities.”
The ASPI report outlined demonstrable security links between the CCP and COSCO. The shipping line even has its own militia such as an aviation search and rescue platoon. In war, such units could perform surveillance, for instance, or ships could perhaps carry PLA missiles. COSCO ships can conduct gray-zone operations in peacetime too: shining lasers into the eyes of pilots is a popular Chinese tactic, for instance, and shipping companies could monitor foreign ship movements or conduct denial operations. Look at how a container ship wedged into the Suez Canal severely disrupted the international flow of shipping.
Quite apart from entering a spiraling debt trap, hosting a Chinese-controlled port is a risk to any country, as it renders one vulnerable to exploitation by Chinese intelligence agencies or the PLAN.
It is not just developing countries who are at risk either. In 2015 the Northern Territory government in Australia ignorantly approved a 99-year lease of Darwin port to Landbridge Industry Australia, a subsidiary of a Chinese company. Many have questioned the deal because of the national security implications, with Darwin serving as northern Australia’s main port and also the site of a US Marine Corps rotational force.
Then, there was a sudden spike of fear in 2018 that China was seeking to gain a foothold in Vanuatu with a naval base. This helped jolt Australia and New Zealand out of their apathy.
The ASPI report warned: “The likeliest scenario would be for PRC port operations to continue expanding. That may offer commercial advantages for the Chinese companies involved but would also allow for some political leverage over vulnerable countries to develop … PLA Navy port calls would be likely to increase in frequency, and Chinese SOEs should be expected to provide logistical assistance to the navy in expansion projects, such as in Djibouti, or potentially in wartime, so there’s a moderate risk that PRC-controlled port facilities may be used against host countries to advance the interests of the CCP.” (ANI)