Beijing’s global maritime operations double as intelligence-gathering outposts.
Maritime trade, which accounts for ninety percent of global trade, plays a pivotal role in connecting markets worldwide. However, its vulnerability to disruptions, whether due to pandemics, port congestion, or shipping incidents, underscores the need for safeguarding this critical sector. Unlike traditional naval embargoes, modern warfare can paralyze shipping through information warfare.
China’s Pursuit of Maritime Influence:
Over the past three decades, the Chinese government has been aggressively expanding its influence in strategic shipping lanes, foreign ports, and open seas. Currently, China boasts ownership, co-ownership, or operational control of approximately 96 foreign ports worldwide, with a constant expansion trajectory, recently extending to Hamburg, Germany, and the Solomon Islands. While foreign ownership of ports isn’t inherently problematic, China’s operations have raised two key concerns.
Information Gathering and Reporting:
Firstly, China has introduced extensive and somewhat opaque information-gathering infrastructure at critical ports globally. Secondly, Chinese laws mandate that all Chinese companies, both private and state-owned, operating overseas, must collect and report intelligence on foreign entities to the Chinese government.
Understanding the Risks:
Given China’s increasingly confrontational stance towards the West, it is imperative to comprehensively comprehend and mitigate the risks associated with Chinese infrastructure ownership. This process must begin with a thorough understanding of what data Beijing has access to, the information it collects, and how intelligence-gathering is intertwined with Chinese port operations.
China’s Dominance in Global Ports:
Of the world’s 75 leading container ports outside China, nearly half have some form of Chinese ownership or operational involvement, granting significant control over terminals, supplies, dry docks, and storage. Over half of China’s overseas maritime assets are strategically located along major shipping routes passing through critical regions, such as the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean Sea.
Information Warfare at Sea:
China’s expansive maritime presence not only facilitates data collection and intelligence-gathering but also serves as a platform for surveillance on a massive scale. Chinese-owned ports utilize LOGINK, China’s logistical software system, to track a wide array of trade, market, and maritime information.
Tightened Policies and Civilian-Military Interoperability:
Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies have blurred the lines between commercial and military activities. All nominally civilian ports built with Chinese assistance abroad are designed for potential use by Chinese warships, and civilian-owned assets must provide support to the Chinese military in times of conflict.
Mitigating Risks and Ensuring Security:
To counteract these challenges, the United States and its allies must take concrete steps:
- Thorough Risk Assessment: Conduct a detailed review of China’s influence on ports and related trade infrastructure, including ownership links and technology screening.
- Strengthen Private Sector Partnerships: Collaborate with the private sector to safeguard key supply chains, adopting programs like the Authorized Economic Operator initiative.
- Sanction Critical Chinese Technology: Consider measures to sanction or remove critical Chinese technology products installed in U.S. ports, encouraging allies to do the same.
As global support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative diminishes, there is a ripe opportunity for a U.S.-led effort to fortify and protect core maritime infrastructure investments worldwide. Balancing economic benefits with the imperative to safeguard maritime trade against emerging risks is crucial in this era of heightened geopolitical tensions.