China’s global network of ports and shipping terminals, overwhelmingly operated by civilian firms, is a critical part of its ability to gather intelligence worldwide and central to its bid to increase its military and diplomatic power projection.
China currently owns or operates terminals in 96 ports around the world, many of which perform maintenance on Chinese military vessels, as part of longstanding Chinese policy to expand the country’s influence, according to an April 2022 report by researchers at the U.S. Naval War College (USNWC) and Indiana University. Critically, the researchers note, these ports are not military bases — China maintains just one overseas military base in Djibouti — but serve as de-facto hubs to “establish a degree of Party-state control over China’s commercial and military supply chains,” and allow the Chinese military to support its own operations during peacetime while keeping tabs on the peacetime operations of others.
Intelligence work “is one of the easiest, most effective, and least preventable uses of commercial port terminals and associated infrastructure [or] equipment, and probably much more relevant than whether those facilities could one day become [People’s Liberation Army] bases,” one of the report’s authors, Dr. Isaac Kardon, then of the USNWC and now a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
One example of this intelligence gathering — which is not always gathered covertly — is the non-profit logistics firm Logink, overseen by the Chinese Ministry of Transportation, which gathers data obtained from public records in addition to the private data of hundreds of thousands of users at ports worldwide to form a comprehensive view of global trading networks, according to The Wall Street Journal. This information can be used to better understand both China’s own economy and the economy of foreign competitors, and gain insights into the military logistics and national security concerns of rivals, such as the U.S.
“The Chinese government makes use of civilian and dual-use capabilities to support expeditionary operations under the auspices of its military-civil fusion strategy,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) wrote in 2020. “China has released several laws and sets of technical standards to enable the PLA to leverage civilian firms, such as those operating roll-on/roll-off and container ships. Civilian entities are capable of supplementing capabilities for operations short of war and of fulfilling an emergency reserve function; however, they have important limitations that undercut their wartime utility.”
The USNWC/Indiana University report concurs with the USCC assessment that these “dual-use” ports would likely struggle to fulfill a wartime role, as they lack key technology and resources to provide support to an extended military conflict.
“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,” the report reads, “but providing only limited combat support during wartime.”
Trade is also central to China’s bid to distance itself from Russia and develop closer connections with countries that are traditional U.S. allies, such as the E.U. — China’s largest trade partner — Japan and South Korea, according to the Financial Times (FT). It is unclear how much Chinese President Xi Jinping knew about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to invade Ukraine. Still, Chinese officials have been trying to distance themselves from their ally, telling European diplomats that the invasion is Putin’s responsibility and that both Europe and China would benefit from enhanced trade.
The strategy seems to be yielding some returns with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz agreeing that Europe should avoid “decoupling” from China following a November visit to China, according to FT. French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to repeat this message following an as-yet unscheduled visit to China.
A European move towards China would represent a significant break with the U.S., causing a rift amongst allies, another long-term goal of Chinese foreign policy, FT reported.
The U.S. has been taking an increasingly anti-China stance following China’s aggressive response to then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan — including military drills and a blockade of the island nation, which China considers part of its territory. A recent simulation by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a prominent foreign-policy think tank, found that while a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was unlikely to result in the island’s takeover, the results would be devastating for all parties.