Expanding Global Maritime Footprint of China

China’s Military Strategy Paper says it is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security of strategic SLOCS and overseas interests and participate in international maritime cooperation so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power

Issue: 3-2021 By Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd)Photo(s): By eng.chinamil.com.cn / Zhang LeiIllustration(s): By SP’s Design Team
Information compiled from open sources. Map not to scale and for representative purpose only.

It is often said that global maritime influence is essential ingredient of a state to become superpower or a great power. History has it all. Ascend of European powers, such as, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Britain, and now the United States of America is testimony to this reality. While continental economic and military power has had great influence worldwide but post WW II the continental power of two blocks, i.e, NATO & Warsaw Pact had a sense of balance, though each one was suspicious of the other’s progress. Once the power balance became uneven, superior sea power of the US became economically and militarily more influential in the world. In addition, some other factors too lead to the fall of Soviet Empire and rise of the US as the sole superpower. We are now in a situation wherein economic leadership of the US is under threat from China and it is also taking giant steps to become militarily & technologically as powerful and influential. China perceived supremacy in maritime domain as more significant than continental power towards its march to the top of the world hierarchy. Possibly, Alfred Mahan had been translated into Mandarin. Famous quote from Mahan’s ‘The influence of Sea Power’ – “whoever rules the waves rules the world” has proven right many times over. Historically, control of seas necessitated acquisition of naval bases for coaling stations (since coal was the driver of ship’s engines). So profound was Mahan’s quote that Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm had copies of Mahan’s books placed on every ship in the German High Seas Fleet and the Japanese government put translations of the document in its imperial bureaus.

China’s Military Strategy Paper of May 26, 2015 too seems to have drawn its text from Mahanian maritime epic where it says:

“The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security of strategic SLOCS and overseas interests and participate in international maritime cooperation so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.”

Hence the PLAN has moved to ‘open seas protection’ and tasked with “protect the security of strategic SLOCS and overseas interest.” It is in this context that the Chinese footprint on the vast global maritime arena is expanding rapidly. It begins with trade, commerce and economy leading to gradual economic coercion, debt trap and briefcase diplomacy resulting in swap of bases for equity. As is known, ‘Flag follows trade’ very true in China’s case.

Beginning with IOR, which China considers as an opening to the West, China has majority stakes leading up to ownership (on lease basis) in various ports

China has increased its investment in ports and berths worldwide, totalling to 42 ports in 34 countries. Beginning with IOR, which China considers as an opening to the West, China has majority stakes leading upto ownership (on lease basis) in Chittagong, Hambantota, Colombo South, Kyaupkyu and Gwadar ports. It has also invested in the second phase of container terminal of Port Khalifa in Abu Dhabi which will give China 90 per cent operational rights.

Xi Dugang of International Engineering University in Zhengzhow and Liu Jiangheng of Research Institute for Smart Cities of Zhengzhow University (A PLA Unit) have been quoted as saying “China needs to avoid causing concern as with advancement of BRI, China’s influence in the Indian Ocean is bound to increase. Therefore, China should actively participate in existing cooperation dialogue mechanisms in the IOR while also strengthen cooperation with US and India for instance in the fields of counter-terrorism, anti piracy or disaster relief.”

In the South Pacific China has been building influence over last two decades. Now it’s growing economic and geopolitical clout has become as large as its assertive behaviour. Just 14 small sovereign nations and seven territories expand 15 per cent of globe and is home to under 13 million people. However, Malenesian sub region separates only six kms from Australia & PNG. Australia and Vanuatu are 2,000 km apart, whereas Palau is under 1,300 kms from Guam. Till WW II control over this region was critical for logistical supply lines for military force projection. However, eversince it has had benign geopolitical significance. It seems to have now changed with the growing presence of China. It has donated $1.5 billion to these islands making it 8 per cent of all aids to islands. Proposed Chinese built dual use facility In Vanuatu was sacked because the news leaked out and US/Australia quickly jumped into PNG to rehabilitate naval facility in Manus island and kept China out. Though there is talk of leasing of Tulagi is in Solomon Islands. Essentially it gives rise to risk of China leveraging diplomacy, debt, trade or elite capture to establish naval base in South Pacific. This has drawn the attention of the West to this region now. Though risk of China and Chinese businesses capturing elite by corruption and undermining institutions of governance remains. It may push these islands towards state failure.

Chinese Aircraft Carrier Liaoning (Hull 16), several guided-missile destroyers and frigate out in the South China Sea

Post COVID-19 downturn in economy by 10 per cent China has become a strategic competitor from being a responsible stakeholder. Assessing China’s growing role in the world, Southern shores of Mediterranean have become most significant sites of great power competition as the US, till recently, was taking a backseat in global affairs. Disengaged US and weakened EU left vacuum and created space for China and Russia to expand their influence.

In Europe, Chinese investment in maritime sector has been very significant. China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) has taken Greek port of Piraeus on lease upto year 2052. Combined with China Merchants Ports Holding Company it has acquired stakes in 13 ports in Europe. These include Rotterdam (Netherlands), Bruges, Zeebrugge and Antwerp (Belgium), Dunkirk, Le Havre, Nantes, Marseille (France), Bilbao and Valencia (Spain), Genoa (Italy), Istanbul (Turkey), Tangier, Casablanca (Morocco) & Marsaxlokk (Malta). Stakes vary from 20 per cent to 58 per cent. There are 16 terminals in 13 different ports which Chinese companies control. It handles 11 million standard containers annually.

In Australia, Port Darwin is on 99 year lease to China for value of A $586 million. China also has investments in ports of Los Angeles and Seattle in the US. In Latin America, China has begun investments with 90 per cent stake in Brazil’s TCP Participacoes (second largest port), in Peru it is building a new port from scratch. China will control interconnected ports leading to Pacific and Atlantic through Amazon river.

African continent is virtually in Chinese hands. It has acquired ports in Nigeria, Togo and Djibouti. Three ports on Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) arrangement in Algeria, Cameron and Mozambique, Three ports on Engineering Procurement Construction (EPC) basis, seven ports on EPC + Finance and Invest arrangement and four on Public Private Partnership.

Disengaged US and weakened EU left vacuum and created space for China and Russia to expand their influence

In a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Defence in the US, the Cdr AFRICOM General Stephen Townsend testified that due to China’s desire to be an equal stakeholder in world affairs it has built large number of warships, submarines and aircraft; it is a certainty that China will make its presence felt in the Atlantic. With Djibouti on the mouth of one of the busiest shipping routes particularly through the Suez and Red Sea, it is now looking for a port on west coast of Africa between Mauritianiain the north and Namibia in the south. It is already watching over all choke points in the IOR, Straits of Gibraltar, Straits of Sicily, Red Sea, Bab-al-Mandaband Mozambique Channel. It is now eyeing Terceira island, one of the Azores; Portuguese Island Lajes Field (presently being operated jointly by USAF and Portuguese AF from an airfield 10,865 ft long) from where it could patrol northern and central Atlantic and cut off traffic between US and Europe or deny access to Mediterranean.

It is matter of time that Chinese vessels in the Atlantic could siphon some US naval forces from Western Pacific easing pressure on China in East Sea, South China Sea and Taiwan straits, distract the US and stretch them for benefit of China. China could also get access to a base 90 miles from east of Palm beach on Grand Bahamas Island where a Hongkong based Business is investing $3 billion on a deep water container facility at Freeport Container Port. Thus it could become another Hambantota and China’s militarisation in Bahamas. There is already a Chinese funded port on Abaco island in the Bahamas. China thus could have two ports close to Florida much to dislike of the US.

Is the new world order staring at China ruling the waves?