China’s massive port investments harbor ‘ulterior motives,’ study finds
China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is largely designed to increase the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) military power projection in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, according to a new study.
China claims that BRI investments strive to create win-win economic partnerships. However, a report by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a nonprofit U.S.-based think tank, found that “Beijing is actively seeking to leverage the geopolitical capacity of its port projects.”
“Beijing’s port investments yield strategic advantages, exhibit common control schemes, and manifest latent indicators of ulterior motives,” determined report authors Ben Spevack and Devin Thorne, who examined 15 Chinese-funded port projects, mainly in the Indo-Pacific.
China’s investments in ports and related industrial infrastructure are intended to build political influence and create “strategic supports states,” according to Chinese analysts, who conducted research for the C4ADS report. For example, the deals all entail strategic locations, financial and political control and CCP presence. The Chinese analysts describe such ports as “strategic support points” through which China plans to establish a network of logistics hubs to support an expanded military and naval presence, according to the authors. They consulted 50 Chinese analysts and looked at Chinese-funded port projects in Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Djibouti, Indonesia, Malaysia, Oman and Sri Lanka, among others.
“Chinese analysts suggest China can preserve its access to vital SLOCs (sea lines of communication), circumvent the Malacca Dilemma (dependence on transport from the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait for 80 percent of its oil supply) and overcome perceived containment by foreign powers,” the authors found. “Wherever there is Chinese business, warships will have a transportation support point,” Deng Xianwu, commanding officer of the People’s Liberation Army Navy warship Changbaishan said in 2016, according to the report.
The CCP, through BRI, reduced Sri Lankan sovereignty by using predatory lending practices to seize control of Hambantota Port and gain leverage over Colombo’s foreign policy, bought a security presence at Gwadar Port in Pakistan, and likely violated Cambodian law through an opaque deal that gave the CCP control of 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline, according to the report. The deal, known as the Koh Kong megadevelopment, caused economic loss, environmental degradation and alleged human rights abuses in Cambodia, the report said. (Pictured: A Pakistani Sailor stands guard while a loaded Chinese ship prepares to depart in 2016 from Gwadar Port, about 700 kilometers west of Karachi, Pakistan.) Pakistan has funded a special division of 15,000 troops to protect such projects in the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the C4ADS study found..
China’s Foreign Ministry rejected the findings of the report, contending in a statement that “China is not playing a geopolitical game,” according to The Associated Press.
Countries around the world should heed the lessons already learned in the Indo-Pacific and apply them to other investment sectors that China is targeting as well, the report said.
“By better discerning the motives and implications of these and other investments, states and communities can more accurately weigh the benefits and costs of Chinese capital that may ultimately affect their long-term welfare,” the report concluded. “If states do not heed the lessons of the Indo-Pacific, China will continue to pursue a security strategy that utilizes infrastructure investments to generate political influence, stealthily expand Beijing’s military presence, and create an advantageous strategic environment.”
There is already evidence that such efforts are underway globally, the report said. In 2016, for instance, the state-owned China Shipping Co. acquired a controlling share, 67 percent, of the Piraeus Port in Greece, essentially buying a strategic foothold in Europe, the report found. That same year, the Landbridge Group, which is associated with the People’s Liberation Army and CCP’s United Front Work Department and is developing Australia’s Darwin Port, also bought Panama’s Margarita Island Port for roughly U.S. $1 billion. In 2017, Panama ceased diplomatic relations with Taiwan.