Communist China is using overseas ports to spread its military influence and, potentially, to covertly collect intelligence on the United States and its allies, according to experts.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules China as a single-party state, is leveraging dual-use facilities throughout the world to serve both commercial and military needs, according to Isaac Kardon, a senior fellow for China Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The most significant observations of this existing dual-use capability emerge from the network of nearly 100 ocean ports owned and/or operated by PRC firms in foreign jurisdictions,” Kardon said, using an acronym for the official name of communist China: the People’s Republic of China.
“[Chinese] warships have now called at over one-third of these facilities, utilizing China’s trade-centric infrastructure network with growing scope and intensity to fulfill an increasingly global mission-set.”
Kardon’s comments were delivered as part of a statement (pdf) to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), which held a hearing on the issue of Chinese military diplomacy on Jan. 26.
He warned that the CCP’s global port network, which includes some of the largest shipping terminals in the world, could be used to covertly collect intelligence on U.S. and allied forces, as well as civilian ships.
“The Chinese port network also offers a ready platform for intelligence-collection,” Kardon said.
“In the normal course of business at a port terminal, port operators will collect and process huge volumes of proprietary information about vessels and their various fuel and supply requirements, routes and destinations, cargos, personnel, and other salient details.
“These data are potentially valuable for military intelligence purposes, especially given the relative ease with which the same observations may be taken of military vessels calling in commercial ports.”
It is normal practice for navies to make such ports of call when out of their territorial waters, Kardon said, but the CCP’s naval fleets were unique in that they did so by using an extensive network of Chinese-owned and operated facilities instead of relying on foreign ports.
Chinese Navy ship Type 054A frigate 548 Yiyang moors at the port of Havana, Cuba, on Nov. 10, 2015. (Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images)
Kardon noted that the CCP’s control of overseas ports also gave the regime the capacity to effectively control international trade, and that the regime could choose to deny the use of its facilities to negatively impact adversaries or competitors.
He also said that the regime was pursuing multiple avenues of maritime power projection and would continue to augment its control of commercial ports by constructing new military bases worldwide.
“Military utilization of PRC-operated foreign infrastructure is also set to proceed with greater intensity over time as key projects and security relationships mature,” Kardon said.
“We should expect efforts to establish formal military bases overseas to continue—and likely succeed in some cases.”
CCP Seeks Influence and Power Through Global Military Presence
The ability of the CCP to shape the international security environment and interfere in U.S. security interests is reaching a new peak, according to Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University, who also provided testimony (pdf) to the USCC.
Indeed, the CCP’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), now has a global presence that commands influence wherever the regime’s eyes wander.
The regime has committed itself to using the PLA to secure diplomatic and political victories, Saunders said, and now controls more than 130 military officers worldwide.
“Chinese military writings describe military diplomacy as a component of China’s broader diplomatic efforts and stress that military diplomacy ‘must always take the overall diplomatic goals of the country as its goal and always grasp the right direction,’” Saunders said.
Kristen Gunness, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said (pdf) that the CCP is using the PLA to shape the international order in an effort to counter anti-communist narratives, gain political advantage, and degrade the United States’ ability to coordinate and build partnerships.
That trend, she said, will only accelerate as the regime finds more partners willing to grant it land for its overseas military facilities.
“Expanded PLA engagements and presence overseas creates more opportunities for intelligence collection, particularly in areas where PLA and U.S. forces operate in proximity or where Chinese forces can observe U.S., partner, and ally activities,” Gunness said.
“Military diplomacy will also undergird China’s efforts to establish more overseas bases, which could then provide a platform for extended PLA operational reach in South Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Middle East, for example, depending on where China chooses to establish additional bases and what capabilities the host country agrees to house on its soil.”