There are ongoing investigations into whether China’s shipping cranes could be utilised as espionage tools. Beijing’s systematic information gathering endeavours potentially enable the pinpointing of critical Western and Indian trade and supply chain vulnerabilities, as well as the monitoring of military shipments, equipment, and components.
Global maritime operations conducted by Beijing serve a dual purpose as intelligence-gathering outposts. Over the past three decades, the Chinese Government has been actively seeking access and influence in open seas, strategic shipping lanes, and foreign ports worldwide.
China’s ownership, co-ownership, or operation of around 96 foreign ports globally reflects its expanding portfolio, including recent acquisitions in Hamburg, Germany, and the Solomon Islands.
Given Beijing’s increasingly adversarial stance towards the West in economic and geopolitical matters, it is imperative to thoroughly comprehend and mitigate the risks associated with Chinese maritime infrastructure ownership.
What specific measures should the Western world and India take to mitigate challenges posed by the Chinese takeover of maritime assets worldwide?
What should be done so that the free flow of global merchant traffic takes place both during peacetime and wartime?
Approximately 90 per cent of the world’s trade relies on sea routes to transport finished goods, components, and commodities to international markets. However, this critical maritime trade is vulnerable to disruptions caused by various factors such as pandemics, port congestion, or ship blockages in canals. While historical wartime embargoes involved fleets of ships, contemporary warfare can incapacitate shipping through the manipulation of information.
Chinese seeking influence in open seas, strategic shipping lanes, and foreign ports
Foreign ownership or control of ports and logistics operations is not inherently problematic, as companies from the Netherlands, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates similarly own and manage numerous overseas ports.
Our understanding must encompass identifying precisely what information Beijing has access to, what data it collects, and how intelligence-gathering activities are linked to Chinese port operations.
China’s maritime operations raise two significant concerns. First, China has introduced extensive and relatively opaque information-gathering infrastructure at critical ports across the world. Second, Chinese laws mandate that all Chinese companies, whether private or state-owned, operating abroad must gather and report intelligence on foreign entities to the Chinese Government.
Given Beijing’s increasingly adversarial stance towards the West in economic and geopolitical matters, it is imperative to thoroughly comprehend and mitigate the risks associated with Chinese infrastructure ownership.
Out of the world’s 75 leading container ports located outside the Chinese mainland, almost half have some degree of Chinese ownership or operational involvement, with the latter being more substantial, enabling China to control access to terminals, supplies, dry docks, and storage facilities. Over half of China’s overseas maritime assets are strategically positioned along major shipping routes traversing the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea, and other vital waterways.
China’s maritime presence, varying from smaller facilities to larger operations with considerable operational control, creates opportunities for extensive information-gathering and strategic activities. Also, China holds the world’s leading shipping capacity, encompassing a vast commercial fleet, including container ships, oil tankers, liquid natural gas transporters, and bulk carriers for commodities like coal and grain. China manufactures over 90per cent of all shipping containers and 80per cent of the world’s ship-to-shore cranes.
Chinese shipping activities serve as data collection outposts engaged in intelligence-gathering
Chinese shipping activities abroad serve as data collection outposts, engaged in intelligence-gathering and surveillance on a massive scale. Numerous ports globally utilise China’s logistical software system,
LOGINK, to monitor a wide range of trade-related information, including vessel and cargo status, customs data, billing and payment records, geo location data, pricing information, regulatory filings, permits, passenger manifests, and booking details. Chinese-owned ports also host 5G telecommunications towers, while China provides the operating systems for port facility computers.
Chinese stringent policies which compel all commercial activities to align with the State’s interests. Chinese port, shipping, and logistics companies are legally obligated to gather information for the Chinese Communist Party, and Chinese law obstructs the flow of shipping data, such as vessel location signals, to other nations.
China, already possessing the world’s largest navy, benefits from access to a global network of state-owned ports. While Beijing operates only one foreign naval base in Djibouti, Chinese military vessels routinely visit Chinese commercial ports, which could serve as crucial resupply points or repair facilities during conflicts. Consequently, China is increasingly emphasising civilian-military interoperability in maritime infrastructure and other domains.
Restoring Western and Indian shipyards to the necessary capacity will require a significant investment
Beijing has blurred the line between commercial and military activities. In fact, all nominally civilian ports constructed with Chinese assistance abroad are designed with potential military use in mind. Additionally, Chinese law mandates that all civilian-owned assets and operations must provide support to the Chinese military in the event of a conflict. Presently, approximately one-third of ports with Chinese company investments have hosted Chinese naval vessels.
In February, the shipping giant Maersk took delivery of a new cargo vessel that meets the International Maritime Organisation’s zero-emission shipping requirements. The vessel, named the Maersk Biscayne, was constructed at the Jiangsu New Yangzi shipyard in China. Maersk has several more ships awaiting construction at Chinese shipyards, highlighting the shipping industry’s growing dependence on Chinese facilities.
This dependency becomes a concern at a time when tensions between China and the West are escalating. Unfortunately, restoring Western and Indian shipyards to the necessary capacity will require a significant investment of both time and resources.
Following specific measures that should to be taken:-
Carry out Security Assessments: Conduct thorough security assessments of Chinese-owned or operated ports and maritime infrastructure to identify potential vulnerabilities and risks. This should involve close cooperation between Western intelligence agencies, maritime agencies, and Govt authorities. Western nations and India should establish stringent review mechanisms to scrutinise foreign investments in strategic maritime assets, especially those with potential national security implications. Transparency in ownership and operations is vital.
Force Chinese to increase Transparency and Accountability: Encourage transparency in Chinese maritime investments and operations. Require Chinese companies to adhere to international standards of transparency and accountability, making it easier to monitor their activities and ensure compliance with security and environmental regulations.
Diversification of Port Operators: Promote diversification of port operators by encouraging investments from a variety of countries. This reduces dependence on China and will help maintain the autonomy of ports.
Forge International Maritime Agreements: Collaborate on international maritime agreements and protocols that ensure the safety and security of global shipping lanes during both peace and wartime. Establish clear rules of engagement to prevent maritime disputes from escalating into conflicts.
Strengthen maritime security agreements and cooperative frameworks among countries to coordinate efforts in securing global merchant traffic.
Investment in Infrastructure Development: Invest in the development of alternative infrastructure and shipping routes that can bypass Chinese-controlled ports when necessary. This can include improvements in existing ports and the construction of new ones.
Adherence to International Law: Encourage all nations, including China, to adhere to international maritime laws and conventions, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which governs peaceful passage and navigation rights. Invest in naval infrastructure, including naval bases and refueling stations, in strategic locations to support the protection of maritime trade routes. Maintain a credible military presence in key maritime regions to deter any aggressive actions by China or other potential threats. Strengthen naval capabilities and cooperation among Western and Indo-Pacific nations.
Use Economic Leverage: Use economic leverage to encourage responsible behaviour by China. This should involve targeted sanctions or trade restrictions on Chinese entities involved in problematic maritime activities.
Multilateral Diplomacy: Engage in multilateral diplomacy to resolve maritime disputes and conflicts peacefully. Encourage dialogue among nations to prevent conflicts that could disrupt merchant traffic.
Strengthen bilateral agreements with countries directly affected by Chinese maritime expansion to coordinate efforts in ensuring the security and integrity of shared waterways. Advocate for international arbitration mechanisms to peacefully resolve maritime disputes and prevent the escalation of conflicts. Encourage China to adhere to international laws and norms governing the seas.
Increase information sharing against China: Establish mechanisms for sharing intelligence and information related to maritime security threats. Strengthen partnerships among intelligence agencies to monitor and respond to potential challenges effectively.
Strengthened cyber security: Implement robust cyber security measures at critical maritime infrastructure points to safeguard against potential cyber-attacks, data breaches, or disruptions initiated by foreign actors, including China.
Public awareness: Raise public awareness about the potential risks associated with Chinese control of critical maritime assets. Educate citizens about the importance of maritime security and the need for prudent measures to protect national interests.
By implementing a combination of these measures, the Western world and India can better mitigate the challenges posed by Chinese maritime activities and help maintain the free flow of global merchant traffic while safeguarding their national interests and regional stability.
Addressing the challenges posed by China’s increasing control of maritime assets requires a multifaceted approach that combines diplomatic efforts, legal safeguards, and cooperative security measures. Collaboration among nations, particularly those that share concerns about maritime security, will be essential in achieving these objectives and maintaining the free flow of global merchant traffic, both in times of peace and during periods of conflict.