China has established a wide network of global commercial ports in an aggressive bid to exert its economic prowess and broaden its ever-growing naval presence, according to a recent report.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think tank has released an interactive report that tracks China’s control of overseas ports, some of which can potentially double up as naval bases. The report said that China now operates or has ownership in at least one port on every continent across the globe, except Antarctica.
As of September 2023, China is involved in as many as 101 port projects, 92 of which are active, while the remaining 9 have become inactive due to cancellation or suspension.
The port expansion bid took off after the launch of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative in 2013.
That, combined with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road connecting China to the rest of the world, “supercharged” Beijing’s overseas port activities, the report said. “We often say that to get rich, we must first build roads, but in coastal areas, to get rich, we must also first build ports,” Xi Jinping said, underscoring China’s vision to rapidly expand its presence in the seas.
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The report said that China has so far signed 70 bilateral and regional shipping agreements with 66 countries and regions. With that, the country now covers all the major regions worldwide.
While China is yet to emerge as a naval superpower due to its limited overseas bases compared to the US, it is focusing on becoming a commercial behemoth that wields significant geoeconomic heft over international sea-lanes and commercial ports, the report said.
It has already become home to the world’s largest container ports, the CFR report said, citing data from the Liner Shipping Connectivity Index.
But that brings us to the unsettling question: Will some or any of these ports be used for military purposes? For years, China has been notoriously expanding its military presence in its own backyard, the South China Sea. A recent report in The New York Times said that Chinese patrol boats have been swarming other countries’ outposts and often squatting on shoals within sight of foreign coastlines.
The report said that these so-called fishing boats, most of which don’t actually fish, make up a maritime militia that is upending the rules of the sea. With that in mind, China’s expansion of ports abroad undoubtedly raises concerns about its potential for extending Beijing’s military presence beyond its immediate territories.
According to the report, despite the physical potential for Chinese naval ships to dock in certain ports like Los Angeles or Piraeus, geopolitical tensions often outweigh practicality.
Western governments have often expressed concerns about China’s development of overseas naval bases, yet China’s real leverage lies not in building naval bases but in extensive investments and ownership in globally connected ports, influencing global trade and logistics, the report said. It said that China’s real leverage lies in gaining an economic upper hand at some of the world’s most connected ports, which underpin the global flow of goods.