“The first and most obvious light in which the sea presents itself from the political and social point of view is that of a great highway; or better, perhaps, of a wide common, over which men may pass in all directions, but on which some well-worn paths show that controlling reasons have led them to choose certain lines of travel rather than others. These lines of travel are called trade routes, and the reasons which have determined them are to be sought in the history of the world.” Alfred Thayer Mahan
Mahan in his seminal work, ‘The Influence of Sea Power upon History’, has commented upon seaborne trade as a natural process for the exchange of goods between countries through own or another nation’s flag-bearing ships. He stressed that the ships need a secure port where ever they visit.
Further, the merchantmen need protection from the nation whose flag they bear, especially in times of war. There may be a need to escort the merchant ships using men of war during hostilities. He goes on to state that “The necessity of a navy, in the restricted sense of the word, springs, therefore, from the existence of peaceful shipping, and disappears with it, except in the case of a nation which has aggressive tendencies, and keeps up a navy merely as a branch of the military establishment.”
The importance of secure sea lines of communication or the SLOCs for a nation has become paramount to safeguard not only its trade but also its growing energy needs. The merchant ships today, by and large, do not operate under the home countries flag, the navies are therefore being kept for protection of SLOCs, and projection of soft/ hard power.
When China embarked upon a path of rapid economic reforms, it became increasingly clear that the PLA(N) would have to expand to meet the new requirements across the oceans. China, therefore, embarked upon a phased transformation of its Navy into a formidable blue water force that would if required command the seas in times to come.
Soon after taking over as Chairman in2013, Xi Jinping has called for China to become a maritime power and has laid importance on the seas for the development of his country’s economic power. Nearly 120 years after Mahan, China embarked on the Mahanian path, albeit with a structure weighed to favour its geopolitical aspirations more than the commercial ones.
This article aims to place before the readers the linkages between the web of ports under the influence of China and the arms exports it does to numerous countries across the globe.
“The long-term stability and sustainable development of the state (China) hinges on the Ocean. Efforts must be made to break through the traditional mindset of simply emphasising the land while neglecting the sea.
China must build modern marine forces compatible with the needs of its national security and development interests, safeguarding her national sovereignty and marine interests; we will guarantee the security of strategic shipping lines and overseas interests & participate in international maritime cooperation and build strategic logistic sites for marine power” The White Paper of the People’s Republic of China, 2015.
Degang Sun while writing for Middle East Institute has brought out that China has two frontiers, namely a natural sovereign frontier and an artificial one as the overseas frontier.
The offshore frontier imbibes China’s commercial interests and enhances its geopolitical reach as China attempts to dawn the role of a global leader.
It has adopted the soft and hard military approaches towards the artificial overseas frontier. The hard approach implies military treaties, setting up military bases like the one in Djibouti, where it conducts military activities freely including, military exercises, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations, and if need be, provide security cover to the host nation.
The soft approach includes joint military exercises, patrols, training, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief, medical support, training, setting up of workshops for arms and ammunition, short term use of basing facilities, etc.
The soft approach is further beneficial if there is a civilian mission in the host country. Whereas the hard approach could, at times lead to souring of relations, the soft approach appears benign and can be upgraded to a hard approach should both nations so desire.
In the past few years, it is seen that the Chinese Maritime functions have increased many folds with the launching of the Maritime Silk Road and its connection with the One Belt One Road Initiative.
The acquisition of interests in ports across the globe by the Chinese state and private companies is a direct result of this approach. Given below are the ports across the world wherein China has a direct interest through state-owned enterprises SOEs.
“In these three things production, with the necessity of exchanging products, shipping, whereby the exchange is carried on & colonies, which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and tend to protect it by multiplying points of safety, is to be found the key to much of the history, as well as of the policy, of nations bordering upon the sea.”
– Alfred Thayer Mahan
Ports Under Influence of China
In July 2018, China’s COSCO Shipping Holdings claimed that a U.S. review body had cleared its planned $6.3 billion acquisition of shipping firm Orient Overseas International Ltd (OOIL) on security issues.
OOIL owns the Long Beach Container Terminal at Port of Long Beach. However, since it became a national security issue, the U.S. government told OOIL to sell the Long Beach Container Terminal so that it does not come under the control of COSCO.
On 09 Sep 2019, The Long Beach Board of Harbour Commissioners approved an agreement transferring the lease to operate Long Beach Container Terminal from Orient Overseas International Line (OOIL) to an American company Macquarie Infrastructure Partners (MIP)
Glimpse of How Trade War Hurts
Port of Long Beach, Port of Los Angeles, Port of Oakland, Port of Portland, Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma which comprise the six largest West Coast ports have sent a letter to President Donald Trump bringing out that the trade conflict with China will have irreversible economic consequences throughout the entire country.
The letter also highlights that California ports collectively saw a decrease of about 30% in exports to China in 2018. Wheat exports have virtually become zero, impacting ten states. Further, exports from The Northwest Seaport Alliance and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport have shown a reduction in export of potatoes (-16.85%), hay (-49.93%), skins and hides (-47.89%), salmon (-47.71%), cherries (-54.56%) and fresh crab (-63.34%).
Takoradi (Ghana), Kribi (Cameroon), Lobito (Angola), Lekki (Nigeria), Lome (Togo), Conakry and Boffa (Guinea), Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Djibouti (Djibouti), Pointe Noire (Congo-Brazzaville), Walvis Bay (Namibia), Richards Bay (South Africa), Mombasa and Lamu (Kenya), Bagamoyo (Tanzania).
|1||Piraeus, Piraeus Container Terminal||Greece|
|2||Zeebrugge, Zeebrugge Terminals NV||Belgium|
|3||Valencia, Noatum Container Terminal||Spain|
|5||Dunkirk, Terminal des Flandres||France|
|6||Vado Ligure, Vado Reefer Terminal||Italy|
|7||Bilbao, Noatum Container Terminal||Spain|
|8||Rotterdam, Euromax Terminal||The Netherlands|
|9||Port of Ambarli (Kumport)||Turkey|
|10||Le Havre, Terminal Nord, Terminal de France||France|
|11||Marsaxlokk, Malta Freeport Terminal||Malta|
|12||Marseille Fos’ Eurofos||France|
|13||Nantes, Terminal du Grand Ouest||France|
|14||Antwerp, Antwerp Gateway||Belgium|
|15||Port Said, Suez Canal Container Terminal||Egypt|
|16||Tanger-Med, Eurogate Tanger||Morocco|
South Pacific Ports
Vanuatu Beijing funded wharf in Luganville. PNG-Chinese-developed port on Manus Island, Chinese development of Wewak, Kikori and Vanimo harbours
Latin America & Caribbean Ports
In Panamá, the Chinese Company Landbridge Group is building the Panamá Colón Container Port, a terminal for neo-Panamax ships, in addition, China’s Harbour Engineering Company Ltd. is building a port station for cruises in the Amador area.
In Brazil, state-owned Chinese company Merchants Port controls the Paranaguá Port, the second largest in the country surpassed only by the Santos Port.
In 2017, the Chinese company China Construction showed interest in developing and funding infrastructure in Mexico’s most important Port, Manzanillo.
In Peru, the Chinese company COSCO Shipping will develop Chancay Port with an investment of about $2 billion.
Colombia and China signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016, to develop a series of projects near Buenaventura Port.
In Uruguay, Chinese Company Shangdong Baoma Fishery is developing a fishing port. Apart from the terminal, the plan includes building a plant to store fishing equipment and the manufacture of fish meal.
|1||Port of Chittagong||Bangladesh|
|2||Colombo Harbour||Sri Lanka|
|3||New Koh Kong Island Port||Cambodia|
|5||Doraleh Multipurpose Port||Djibouti|
|6||Khalifa Port Container Terminal, Abu Dhabi||UAE|
|7||Al Duqm Port & Drydock||Oman|
|8||Port of Gwadar||Pakistan|
|9||Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port (Hambantota Port)||Sri Lanka|
|11||Kyaukpyu Deep Sea Port||Myanmar|
|13||Port of Muara||Brunei|
|14||Port of Payra||Bangladesh|
|15||Port of Tanjung Priok||Indonesia|
“The arms industry is unlike any other. It operates without regulation. It suffers from widespread corruption and bribes. And it makes its profits on the back of machines designed to kill and maim human beings.” The Arms Industry, Control Arms Campaign, October 2003.
The Arm exporting governments indulge in furthering their geopolitical agendas, strategic interests, as well as their economic interests by keeping their own arms industry churning.
There is no fair pricing of a particular type of weapon; it is decided upon the need and hidden agendas of the governments. The arms trade is not only lucrative for the seller, but also for the buyer as it gives the buyer a sense of wielding power and security from inimical neighbours.
It is appropriate to look at some arms export data from China to its friendly countries. SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, released in 2020, reveals that China exported arms and ammunition to 55 countries during the period 2014 to 2019. North Korea is not included in the SIPRI Database as no information is available regarding arms purchased by it from China.
The type of weapons exported by China during 2014-2019 comprised of Aircraft, Air defence systems, Unmanned Vehicles, Armoured vehicles, Artillery, Engines, Missiles, Naval weapons, Sensors, and Ships.
Ports & Arms Analysis
It is interesting to note that 41 Countries out of the 59 Countries to which China had exported Arms and Ammunition during 2014-2019 have Ports on their Maritime Borders.
At least 15 Countries out of the 41 have known strong Chinese presence in their Ports.
Further, 9 landlocked Countries that received arms and ammunition from China have contiguous boundaries with Coastal nations, which in turn are beneficiaries of Chinese arms export. The list includes; Bolivia, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Laos, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, South Sudan & Zambia.
- One double landlocked country Uzbekistan is surrounded by 6 landlocked countries out of which 5 are recipients of arms from China.
Countries with Sea Ports receiving Arms from China
Algeria, Angola, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameron, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, DR Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Gabon, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad, Tobago, UAE, and Venezuela.
Land Locked Countries with Access to Sea Ports & Receiving Chinese Arms
Bolivia, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Laos, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Zambia
Land Locked Countries Receiving Chinese Arms Via Non-Sea Routes
Afghanistan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Strategic Nature of Arms Export
The arms exporting governments indulge in furthering their geopolitical agendas, strategic interests, as well as their economic interests by keeping their own arms industry churning. There is no fair pricing of a particular type of weapon; it is decided upon the need and hidden agendas of the governments.
The arms trade is not only lucrative for the seller, but also for the buyer as it gives the buyer a sense of wielding power and security from inimical neighbours.
Arms exports are strategic since they involve the national security of a sovereign state. Small nations share their national security concerns and seek advice as to the weapon suits, this, in turn, makes them vulnerable to China.
The weapons ensure at least two to three decades of dependency through the requirement of workshops, testing equipment, periodic maintenance, supply of critical spares, modifications, midlife upgrades, future models, and regular supplies of ammunition. A nation cannot get out of this cycle once it has imported a weapon system critical to meet its national security needs.
For the arms exporter, such a relationship is the proverbial cow which can be milked for cash and geopolitical influence periodically. Needless to say, that with a sophisticated weapon system comes to the associated burden of exorbitant cost to be met through easy finance from Chinese entities and thereafter the web of debt trap springs shut.
Ports are crucial for the import-export of arms as they not only provide the cheapest mode of transport but as compared to road/ air transportation modes, they permit safe hauling of a large tonnage of explosives across vast distances.
Thus, for a coastal nation receiving arms through import at her ports, it becomes a symbiotic long-term relationship with the exporter even though the exporter may not have invested in the recipient’s port. The exporter enjoys preferential treatment because of the sensitive nature of the cargo.
Two clear categories emerge from the analysis above as far as ports are concerned, firstly, countries that import arms from China but their seaports are free from any Chinese encumbrances. Secondly, those countries which import Chinese weapons and also have some of their ports in partial or full control of Chinese enterprises.
These two categories of nations have to be strategically weaned away from Chinese influence. Only a consortium of countries can carry out this task, which in turn implies the creation of a coalition shield against the expansion of Chinese interests in foreign ports. The web of Ports and Arms has been meticulously spun by China ensnaring many states across the globe, and it would be an arduous task to wean the affected nations by providing cost-beneficial alternatives.
The quote below attributable to Napoleon has rung true!
“China is a sleeping giant. Let her lie and sleep, for when she awakens, she will astonish the world.”