Dual-use ports give PRC proximity to vital shipping lanes

By Indo-Pacific Defense FORUM Magazine

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is building and acquiring interests in ports throughout the world with an eye toward using them for commercial and military purposes. The dual-use harbors increase the nation’s influence along vital sea routes and at maritime passages.

The highest concentrations of these foreign ports are in the western Indian Ocean and littoral South and Southeast Asia near major sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and critical shipping chokepoints, Isaac Kardon, senior fellow for China studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the United States Naval War College Review in 2021. He cited a Chinese military academic who described a “maritime lifeline” stretching from the Taiwan Strait through the South China Sea, Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

The PRC’s business, political and military posture helps it finance access to nearly 100 strategically located commercial ports across the globe, according to research by Kardon and Wendy Leutert of Indiana University. The port investments by PRC-controlled logistics and shipping companies are linked to the nation’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme that aims to bind much of the world to China. More than half of the port deals were made in the past decade under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, Newsweek magazine reported in October 2022.

The PRC’s effort to gain influence at foreign ports aligns with its desire to be a maritime power. A 2015 PRC white paper asserted: “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.”

Control of sea routes and maritime passages is critical for commercial and security purposes, especially in the Indo-Pacific, where much of the world’s shipping traverses. The U.S. and its Allies and Partners assure economic prosperity via safe and secure sea passageways. Analysts say the PRC’s presence and heavy investment at strategic ports are a threat because ships using the facilities can have military as well as commercial objectives. “If it can carry goods, it can carry troops,” Jonathan Hillman, then a director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Guardian newspaper in July 2018.

Some observers fear the widespread investments are a dangerous power projection, with security risks ranging from espionage to economic coercion to military expansion. Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy ships have visited about one-third of the foreign ports, Newsweek reported. The Chinese navy’s access to these ports makes it less expensive and more efficient to replenish overseas fleets, The Wall Street Journal newspaper reported in November 2022.

There also is the prospect of Beijing using trade and port investments to influence other states’ behavior. The PRC previously has imposed undeclared trade boycotts on Australia, Japan, Lithuania, Norway and Taiwan for perceived slights, Newsweek reported. The scale of Chinese investment in foreign ports may give the PRC leverage over host nations, AidData, a research laboratory at William & Mary University in Virginia, reported in July 2023.

AidData identified eight ports outside mainland China where the PRC might establish naval bases within the next five years:

  • Bata, Equatorial Guinea: Heavily financed by the PRC on West Africa’s Atlantic coast.
  • Gwadar, Pakistan: Strategically located on the Arabian Sea.
  • Hambantota, Sri Lanka: Positioned on the Indian Ocean, it’s the PRC’s largest foreign port investment.
  • Kribi, Cameroon: The West African port has received significant Chinese financing.
  • Nacala, Mozambique: A deepwater port on Africa’s east coast.
  • Nouakchott, Mauritania: The northwest Africa port has proximity to Europe and key chokepoints.
  • Ream, Cambodia: Close ties between Cambodia’s elite and the CCP raise the likelihood of a Chinese military presence.
  • Vanuatu: A potential Chinese military base in the Pacific islands.

AidData considered the scale of the PRC’s financing of harbor infrastructure, the strategic value and location of ports, relationships with host country leaders, alignment with the PRC in United Nations General Assembly votes, and port characteristics suitable for naval fleets. Four of the ports are in the Indo-Pacific.

Construction at Cambodia’s Ream naval base, near Sihanoukville, recently has drawn interest. After years of denials, Cambodian officials acknowledged the PRC’s pivotal role in the work. Satellite images taken in June 2023 show Chinese-funded building activities, the London-based Chatham House think tank reported in late July. Among the amenities is a new pier like one at the PRC’s only overseas naval base in Djibouti, East Africa. “Even a modest logistics hub at Ream would give Chinese warships greater range and a permanent presence in the Gulf of Thailand and the waters of Southeast Asia,” Chatham House reported.

India and the U.S. protested in August 2022 when the Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese vessel alleged to be a spy ship, docked at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, which was built with Chinese loans and taken over by a PRC-owned company on a 99-year lease when Sri Lanka defaulted on debt payments. Colombo allowed the Yuan Wang 5 to make port but ordered it to turn off intelligence collection equipment, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported.

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