China is expanding a network of more than 95 port facilities around the world and is working to establish a system of overseas military bases that analysts say will support Chinese President Xi Jinping’s announced ambition for global dominance.
The port network is part of Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and development program that Beijing has been pushing for nearly a decade in an effort to cement its status as an economic superpower and win support in the developing world for China’s brand of communism.
The latest addition to the network will likely be in Cuba, which also is ruled by a fraternal communist regime. China announced on Dec. 24 an agreement with Havana to cooperate on Cuban infrastructure development. No details were disclosed, but the agreement was hailed as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
China experts say the agreement marked a significant milestone in Beijing’s plan to build a global empire of commercial ports and military bases, including several others expected to be established close to U.S. shores.
One U.S. official described the global port network as a dual-use system to serve civilian and military needs. Work is being carried out under the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a subset of the Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to revive the ancient Silk Road trade routes connecting China with the rest of the world.
A U.S. Naval War College report has warned that the 95 overseas ports could ultimately serve as strategic access points for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Analysts say Beijing’s main commercial objective is to gain control over global shipping hubs. The goal, they say, is to expand China’s power over the international flow of goods to guarantee dominance for Chinese products on the world market.
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The expansion is also seen as a strategic method to advance political controls to preserve Chinese Communist Party rule.
Beijing is promoting its model of governance because Chinese leaders believe the free and open liberal global order that the United States set up in the wake of World War II threatens their authoritarian system.
Mr. Xi announced the expansion in a 2017 speech in which he warned of intensifying competition with the free market capitalist world.
“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is no walk in the park or mere drum-beating and gong-clanging. The whole party must be prepared to make ever more difficult and harder efforts,” Mr. Xi said in announcing a “new era” for China at the center of the world stage.
Mr. Xi said “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — the euphemism for China’s hybrid brand of communism — has brought wealth and power and suggested the nation could become the choice for developing nations and ultimately for the entire world.
The Biden administration, while embracing some harder-line policies of the Trump administration, has struggled to effectively respond to the Chinese global strategy. The administration has framed the situation as a sportslike competition between China and the United States, with the two sides offering rival models for other nations to judge.
Critics say the U.S. administration underestimates the scope and severity of China’s challenge. “Biden has little understanding of what is happening” with regard to the Chinese expansion around the world, said a U.S. official familiar with China’s growing port network.
Shipping container missiles
One danger behind the emerging Chinese base-port network stems from the PLA’s development of long-range missiles capable of being fired from launchers disguised as shipping containers, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The PLA is building a variant of the YJ-18 long-range cruise missile that can be fired from a mobile launcher disguised as a 40-foot-long shipping container. The container missile was copied from Russia’s system known as Klub-K. When fully developed, the system could turn China’s container ports into cruise missile bases.
U.S. military commanders and defense policymakers have focused heavily on Beijing’s regional ambition to control waters close to China.
However, the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that “in the unlikely scenario of a war with China, the first strikes will likely come from containerized missiles.”
Others say the prospect that China could fire such missiles from some of the 5,600 government-controlled merchant vessels amplifies the threat.
“Deploying container-launched missiles on its merchant fleet would significantly enhance China’s warfighting capabilities,” retired Navy Capt. Raul Pedrozo wrote in the current issue of the International Law Studies journal. “Once perfected, [container missiles] will provide China with a long-range precision strike capability that can engage both surface combatants and land-based targets.”
While the Pentagon controls a string of military bases spanning the globe, China has just one well-publicized overseas military base, which is in Djibouti along the strategic Red Sea in the Horn of Africa.
A report last month by the online newsletter Silk Road Briefing said Beijing has been operating a base in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains for two years. China is reported to be expanding the base and building another on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on the Chinese military said the PLA is expanding its footprint with plans for bases and facilities in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan.
“A global PLA military logistics network and PLA military facilities could both interfere with U.S. military operations and support offensive operations against the United States as the PRC’s global military objectives evolve,” the report said.
The PLA’s first naval base on the Atlantic is being negotiated for access to the deep-water port in Equatorial Guinea, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing intelligence reports.
Other published reports say China is working on setting up military bases in the Persian Gulf, negotiating with Iran for a base on Kish Island or the port of Chabahar, and seeking to establish a base at the United Arab Emirates’ Khalifa Port. Israel’s Haifa Port has also been the target of a Chinese commercial deal.
China denies expansion
Chinese officials sharply reject the narrative that Beijing is engaged in military expansionism around the world.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman said China is developing its national defense forces to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests as well as international and regional peace and security.
“China is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development, adopting a national defense policy that is defensive in nature, and upholding world and regional peace and stability,” the spokesman, Liu Pengyu, said in an email. “China has never engaged in arms race or military expansion. These policies and positions are not going to change.”
The U.S. military’s global basing system still dwarfs the Chinese port and base network. Dozens of major naval and land bases have allowed the United States to project power around the world without challenge since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Still, analysts say Beijing’s activities represent a direct challenge to the U.S.-led international democratic order. China’s military has simultaneously engaged in a massive warship buildup that includes the development of aircraft carriers and guided-missile ships. It appears to be geared toward confronting the U.S. Navy.
From 2014 to 2018, the Chinese navy deployed more warships than the combined navies of Britain, Germany, India and Spain.
The U.S. government has been working diplomatically behind the scenes to limit or block the Chinese basing network from coming to fruition. Washington is using a combination of economic incentives and warnings to nations around the world that allowing Chinese-controlled ports will jeopardize U.S. security assistance.
Reflecting rising concerns on Capitol Hill, the latest defense authorization bill that President Biden signed into law requires the Pentagon to report by June on the national security dangers in Latin America. The report must examine whether Chinese investments in port projects and other infrastructure in Latin America and the Caribbean will assist the PLA in future naval operations or allow China to electronically spy on U.S. or host nation communications.
China’s state-owned port equipment company, Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co., has invested heavily in the Cuban port of Mariel over the past several years, adding four ship-to-shore gantry cranes. Plans call for adding up to two dozen more cranes in the coming years to significantly boost the port’s container capacity, according to Chinese state media.
Beijing is also expanding its influence in Panama. Chinese state-linked companies bracket both ends of the strategic Panama Canal. Critics fear the companies, in a time of crisis, could work with the PLA to shut down shipping in a vital chokepoint for the U.S. Navy.
In 2016, China bought control of Panama’s largest port on the Atlantic at Margarita Island. In March, Panama’s government began the renewal process for leases of the ports at either end of the canal, run by Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd.
Around the globe
U.S. officials are also concerned about Beijing’s apparent push for control of a number of European ports.
The push involves key ports in Greece. The state-run China Ocean Shipping Co. (Cosco), under the direct control of the Chinese Transport Ministry, holds the contract to run the Greek port of Piraeus. In 2017, two Chinese missile warships docked at the port, which is central to Beijing’s effort to expand its power and influence in Europe.
Other major Chinese-government-linked ports in Europe include Cosco-run facilities in Zeebrugge, Belgium, and Valencia, Spain.
China’s civilian ports could double as PLA naval supply bases in any major conflict, said Matthias Postl, a research associate with the Austrian military’s defense academy.
Dual-use strategic bases are gaining ground because they offer peacetime logistics as well as intelligence and communications benefits, Mr. Postl wrote in a recent report published by the academy’s Institute for Peace Support and Conflict Management.
The 95 ports outside China, he wrote, are operated and partially owned by four main Chinese companies: China Ocean Shipping Co. (Cosco), Hutchison, China Merchants Port and China Merchant Port (Terminal Link), as well as smaller companies.
“These four big companies are world leaders in shipping and transportation and complement the PLA’s otherwise quite limited overseas logistics capabilities, with access to select foreign ports to provide the necessary logistical support for naval operations in such distant waters,” Mr. Postl wrote.
The ports include 31 in the Atlantic, 25 in the Indian Ocean, 21 in the Pacific and 16 in the Mediterranean. A total of 22 ports are located in Europe, 20 in the Middle East and 20 in Africa. Most are close to vital sea lanes, including the English Channel, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Turkish Strait.
Chinese control over the ports could pave the way for PLA warships. Cosco, which runs eight European terminals, and China Merchants Port, which worked on the military base at Djibouti, are likely to allow easy access to the Chinese military.
Mr. Postl wrote that Cosco and China Merchants have participated in military-civilian exercises using roll-on/roll-off vessels built to PLA specifications.
In Asia, the PLA is setting up regional ports and bases in Cambodia at Ream Naval Base and throughout the South China Sea. Chinese military bases in the sea now include missile emplacements and military runways on rebuilt disputed islands.
For the Indian Ocean, the PLA plans to use Pakistan’s recently built Gwadar Port and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota International Port as bases to protect Middle East oil shipments, which are vital to China’s economy, and to project power in that part of the world.
Australia’s government is considering whether to cancel a 99-year lease it granted to China’s Landbridge Group for the strategic northern port of Darwin in 2015. Landbridge denies posing a national security risk in running the port, which is close to a U.S. military base and is a logistics hub for U.S. and Australian forces that train together regularly.
Friction over the port has grown since China began using economic coercion against Australia — blocking access to Chinese markets — after the Australian government called for a renewed investigation into the Chinese origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Targeting ‘strategic strongpoints’
Before he became White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan wrote in May 2020 that China is on the march and no longer can be considered a responsible partner in the U.S.-led international order.
“There is the campaign to control the crucial waterways off China’s coast, as well as reported plans to create a chain of bases and logistical facilities farther afield,” Mr. Sullivan said in a Foreign Affairs article co-written with Hal Brands, a scholar with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The two pointed to “systematic efforts” by Beijing to “refine methods of converting economic influence into economic coercion throughout the Asia-Pacific and beyond.”
Analysts point to a range of scenarios.
Isaac B. Kardon, an assistant professor at the Naval War College and a member of its China Maritime Studies Institute, said some of the 95 Chinese ports will be used as “strategic strongpoints” for the PLA to conduct sustained overseas military operations of increased complexity and duration.
The Chinese Communist Party, Mr. Kardon said, is pushing a program dubbed “military-civilian fusion,” which will help PLA forces use overseas terminals run by Chinese firms. “The plan depends on commercial ports to support its growing operations overseas,” he said.
Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Stu Cvrk said China is creating “hub-and-spoke” transportation infrastructure through ports and bases to facilitate access to strategic raw materials and natural resources to fuel its manufacturing and production. “The hub-and-spoke network seeks to control the world’s supply of rare earth elements and guarantees Chinese access to oil, gas, minerals, metals and other materials used in Chinese industries,” he said.
He added that China’s global economic initiatives provide cover for long-term objectives, specifically military expansion that could one day include PLA bases in Trieste, Italy; Lamu, Kenya; Eyl, Somalia; Eyl, Somalia; Bagamoyo, Tanzania; Bata, Equatorial Guinea; Tangier, Morocco; and El Hamdania, Algeria.
Capt. Cvrk said other Chinese ports and bases under consideration include Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport and port cities in Angola, Kenya, the Azores and Tanzania. “The PLA navy is expanding its ability to ‘protect’ Chinese commercial shipping routes, as well as its ability to conduct the U.S. equivalent of ‘presence missions,’” he said.
The Chinese ports are part of a larger strategy that includes ringing and neutralizing rival India, shifting the military balance in the Middle East from the United States to China and eventually providing strategic port encirclement of the United States, Capt. Cvrk said.
Retired Indian Army Col. Vinayak Bhat said the Chinese Communist Party ultimately seeks a dominant role in the world economy.
“The objectives of this policy are strongly supported by the PLA through their overseas bases, which are carefully chosen to control all strategic sea lanes of communication as well as road networks that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative,” Col. Bhat said.
“The PLA overseas bases,” he said, “are used as a tool to further the aims of [the] CCP to dominate and control the world.”