HONG KONG : Infrastructure deals with foreign countries – including airports and ports – are instrumental for China to exert greater influence on other countries.
It’s showing itself in the Pacific at present. China has already sewn up a security cooperation deal with Solomon Islands, and now Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will be visiting Fiji, Solomons, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and possibly Kiribati one after the other to sign deals relating to things like airports and runways.
But perhaps ports are the most useful asset for a militant-minded China, as such facilities could have a direct military application. As well as servicing Chinese warships, they could act as a potential conduit for Chinese weapons overseas.
Does China, for example, produce shadowy ISO containers able to launch missiles? Russia offer such KlubK missiles for sale. As Rosoboron export says in its promotional literature, the Klub-K can be delivered “by any kind of transport capable of shipping marine containers using civil logistics”.
Such containerized missiles can be launched from cargo ship, port, truck or train. Hidden among millions of other containers, they would be impossible to track and could be offloaded at a Chinese-controlled port ready to launch a pre-emptive or retaliatory strike against an opponent.
Containing cruise missiles like the YJ-18C, containers could be smuggled anywhere in the world like a Trojan horse, and even kept for years in a climate-controlled storage site awaiting launch. Missiles with electromagnetic pulse warheads targeting an American naval base could instantly put warships and submarines out of action, for example.
This is not all speculation either, as a mock-up of such a container missile system was shown at a Chinese defense exhibition as long ago as 2016. That is the worst-case scenario for Chinese-operated ports overseas, but there are numerous other advantages that China gains through overseas investment in such infrastructure.
Chinese commercial firms currently operate terminals in 96 ports spread across 53 countries.
At 29 of these ports, China is the sole operator, giving it greater discretion over their usage. By comparison, the UAE operates terminals in 50 ports worldwide, and Singapore 40 ports. In a newly published article entitled “Pier Competitor: China’s Power Position in Global Ports” in the International Security journal, a compelling argument is made about risks posed by Beijing’s investment in international ports, warning that these are underappreciated by others but consequential for China.
The authors are Isaac B. Kardon and Wendy Leutert, Assistant Professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US Naval War College, and Assistant Professor at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University respectively. They noted that facilities “already provide dual-use capabilities to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during peacetime, establishing logistics and intelligence networks that materially enable China to project power into critical regions worldwide”.
PLA Navy (PLAN) warships are already using commercial ports, one example being the Type 052C destroyer Xian berthing at a Chinese-operated terminal in Alexandria, Egypt for a four-day technical stop in August 2019. It underwent dry-docking there and was fully replenished.
To date, China’s navy has made at least one port call at a third of Chinese-owned overseas ports. This might be for refueling, resupply or merely to “fly the flag”, and at least nine of these visits involved significant maintenance or repairs. The authors contend that this pattern of PLAN port calls will likely spread to the 64 ports where it has not already occurred.
In fact, the PLAN has privileged access to Chinese-run dual-use facilities around the world. Kardon and Leutert asserted it is “a conspicuous display of the growing sophistication and scope of Chinese military operations abroad – achieved without a network of overseas bases and allies.”
When Chinese firms operate a major port overseas, the PLA, at least according to Chinese internal laws, is required to secure both the port terminal and sea routes to it. This infrastructure network sustains Chinese peacetime operations worldwide, and also enhances its ability to monitor the actions of others.
The PLA collects intelligence and conducts surveillance when it visits overseas ports. “Some PLA analysts even explicitly mention technical collection methods from commercial ports, indicating that such intelligence activities are likely already occurring. For instance, signals intelligence and other sensors or equipment may be discreetly placed in PRC firms’ port terminals abroad, or PLA or intelligence personnel may be embedded in PRC firms’ staff.”
Kardon and Leutert wrote: “We identify multiple organizational and legal mechanisms by which China may coordinate or coerce its firms to serve state directives. But we cannot definitively conclude that the partystate directed Chinese companies to acquire commercial port assets with the express intention of using them for military purposes.”
Indeed, China’s investment in many ports preceded most of Beijing’s regulatory mechanisms that enable dual use. China introduced defense mobilization and transportation laws in 2010 and 2017 respectively that authorize the PLA to commandeer privately held assets. Thus, no Chinese firm can legally refuse any PLA request for assistance, whether at home or abroad. All are obliged to serve the state, with the law mandating that “Chinese enterprises engaged in the international transportation business shall provide for the supply and support of ships, aircraft, vehicles and personnel of China’s military operations”.
Ominously, the deputy chief of the PLAN Operations Department declared in 2010 that “Chinese enterprise facilities in overseas ports are the next step in building an overseas support system”.
More recently, China’s 2019 Defense White Paper explicitly stated the PLA is actively “developing overseas logistical facilities” to “address deficiencies in overseas operations and support” for contingencies. This could include noncombatant evacuations like those China conducted from Libya in 2014 and Yemen in 2015.
According to Deng Xianwu, captain of a PLAN amphibious transport dock vessel, “As long as there are Chinese companies, there will be a forward transportation support point for warships.”
PLA analysts have said too, “We should place civil affairs and economics front and center.
We must mix the military among civilians, and use civilians to conceal the military.”
By clandestinely embedding military personnel within a commercial entity, China can avoid raising international threat perceptions. The International Security journal report continued: “Chinese naval forces already employ PRC firms’ port networks abroad to project military power without the more costly and visible footprint of permanent bases.
The PLAN regularly visits overseas ports, including Chinese companyowned and -operated facilities, and it conducts military exercises with a growing array of host states. The growing scope and sophistication of PLA operations abroad is a source of considerable concern for many foreign states, which interpret the PRC’s ostensible efforts to ‘protect China’s overseas interests’ as a direct or indirect security threat.”
China is paranoid about the US Navy’s ability to control the globe’s 16 main chokepoints.
As one PLAN analyst observed, “In seeking to control them in peacetime, the US is in reality creating for itself an advantageous strategic situation. In wartime it would be able to ensure at fairly small cost that the US and its allies could use the ocean without impediment while preventing the enemy from doing so.”
Establishing a network of commercial ports is therefore one way to build Chinese resilience against potential American coercion. Indeed, Beijing could even use such facilities as an offensive jumping-off point to delay, degrade or disrupt maritime trade flow to other nations.
This becomes all the more necessary since China will never develop a strong network of naval bases such as the USA does. By setting up overt military bases overseas, China would hurt itself by triggering aggressive countermeasures from other concerned parties. Such bases also go against China’s narrative that the Belt and Road Initiative is an entirely peaceful venture.
Thus, “Building a global network of overseas bases is even less appealing for China because an attractive alternative is available. Chinese companies’ large holdings of commercial assets abroad in critical infrastructure, especially ports, can support logistics, intelligence and other military missions cheaply and without the geopolitical consequences that dedicated overseas bases would trigger,” Kardon and Leutert explained.
Showing just how successful a strategy this is, few countries have blocked Chinese firms from investing in or controlling their ports. After all, such investments look so innocuous! Individual facilities do not look threatening, yet together they form a comprehensive network available for Chinese use.
China could also exploit the dependency of others like the USA on supply chain vulnerabilities. Interestingly, in April 2020, Chairman Xi Jinping instructed the party’s Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission to “tighten the dependence of the international industrial supply chain on China and form a strong countermeasure and deterrent capability for outsiders to artificially cut off supply”. An ability to plausibly deny any involvement in commercial disruption, such as constrictions at ports, is a powerful tool in Beijing’s hands.
In a separate report by Kardon, published this month in The National Bureau of Asian Research, the academic studied Chinese port infrastructure in Africa. “For the military, these facilities help forge new relationships with regional navies, as China emerges as a provider of military technology, training and assistance. They enable routine intelligence collection and the accumulation of logistical experience by operating task forces around the region.
“The ports showcase the optics of attractive new PLA Navy surface vessels showing the PRC flag around a distant continent. They are also the beachhead for wider Chinese engagement in Africa, providing a politically visible and commercially practical point of further access for PRC firms and official actors.”
However, the benefits of a network of commercial ports are probably more limited in wartime, simply because it depends on commercial facilities in non-allied states. Indeed, things are less certain in a wartime scenario.
A host nation would have to specifically permit China to operate warships from its territory during war, and this would force it to assume the status of a belligerent itself. Host nations are therefore more likely to remain neutral. Other factors mitigate against full naval use too, among them the technical challenge of container terminals possessing cargo-handling equipment that is unsuitable for naval vessels.
Kardon and Leutert added: “Moreover, China would lack the hardened naval facilities, specialized parts, ordnance, equipment and trained on-site personnel requisite for any complex or contested military operation. Chinese firms’ port network thus produces a distinct but restricted form of power projection: enabling the PLA to operate with growing scope and scale in peacetime, but providing only limited combat support in wartime.”
An enemy could also mine a harbor or scuttle a ship to prevent China using an overseas port, or alternatively it could strike exit routes and nearby airfields. Nonetheless, if China has access to foreign ports that are close to airfields, that possess fuel supplies, spare parts, dry docks and roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) piers suitable for unloading military vehicles, it has a distinct advantage in all sorts of scenarios. If Ro-Ro berths are built to higher specifications (e.g. a minimum 10m berth depth, cargo assembly sites, storage areas greater than 120,000m2 and quality service roads), this allows heavy military equipment to be unloaded.
Remember too that China has pursued robust specific policies to promote military-civil fusion, and that certainly includes building commercial ports to military specifications. Currently, some 86% of Chinese-run foreign ports are capable of berthing the PLAN’s largest Shandong aircraft carri