The United States is becoming increasingly obsessed with Chinese activities in commercial seaports of allied countries because of the risk they would pose to its navy.
Nonetheless, calls for European allies to avoid backing China’s global maritime ambitions and the Belt and Road Initiative continue to fall on deaf ears.
At last week’s Transport Logistic fair in Munich, the Italian port of Genoa signed a cooperation agreement with the Chinese port of Shenzhen, the world’s fourth-largest container facility.
Together, China’s COSCO Shipping Ports and Qingdao Port International Development have a 49.9 percent stake in two terminals in Genoa. Other European operators are also engaging with Chinese counterparts.
Europe’s progressive integration into the belt and road plan, which is aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road and creating a China-centric network of trade relationships across Eurasia and beyond, has alarmed the administration of US President Donald Trump.
In its annual report to Congress on China’s military power, released last month, the US Department of Defence said the belt and road investments could help the Chinese navy gain access to “selected foreign ports to pre-position the necessary logistics support to sustain naval deployments in waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean”.
To US strategists, China is seeking control of overseas infrastructure to project and support naval power at greater distances.
The Chinese could achieve such a goal by gaining preferred access to foreign commercial ports through belt and road projects, as well as through some exclusive logistics facilities.
China opened it is first and, until now, only an overseas military base in Djibouti two years ago. The tiny country in the Horn of Africa also hosts a US naval facility.
According to the Pentagon, the Chinese could establish a second naval outpost near the Pakistani commercial port of Gwadar, which is being operated by China Overseas Ports Holding Company.
The Trump administration sounded the alarm on Chinese-managed European ports as Italy became the first of the Group of Seven nations to sign up for the Belt and Road Initiative in March, and the Italian ports of Genoa and Trieste signed cooperation agreements with state-owned China Communications Construction Company.
However, Nato allies in Europe appear unwilling to block Chinese investment in their port facilities. The Dutch port of Rotterdam where Cosco has a 35 percent stake in a terminal recently signed a declaration of intent with Chengdu International Railway Port Investment to improve connectivity between Europe and China.
The port of Dunkirk, the third largest in France, said last month that it would try to seize the opportunities offered by China’s belt and road plan to boost trade between the two countries.
In March, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to France, the port of Marseille concluded an agreement with China’s Quechen Silicon for the construction of a processing plant in the port industrial zone.
The Chinese run or hold stakes in a dozen European ports. COSCO manages the strategic port of Piraeus in Greece, and Chinese port operators are also active in Belgium, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Malta.
Some of these countries have the highest unemployment rates in Europe and welcome Chinese financing of infrastructure.
Local communities are often major supporters of China’s participation in port development projects. This is the case for the construction of a new seaport in the Arctic city of Kirkenes, Norway, which could become another gateway for Chinese products shipped to Europe.
China has expressed interest in the initiative as it wishes to take advantage of the melting ice in the Arctic to develop a Polar Silk Road connecting its northeastern ports to the Baltic Sea.
European governments reckon they are ready to manage a growing Chinese presence in their transport facilities.
Also, the European Union has set up a mechanism for screening foreign investment and safeguarding the region’s strategic interests, which is evidently aimed at China.
With regard to the possibility of gathering intelligence on the movements and maintenance of US and Nato vessels stopping at ports operated by Chinese companies, some European port officials told me this was not an issue, given that the civil and military sides of their terminals are separate.
After all, Chinese port operators are also present at a number of US terminals and do business with many allies of Washington.
For example, China’s Landbridge Group signed a 99-year lease for the Australian port of Darwin in 2015.
It is worth noting that 2,500 US marines will be based in Darwin by July.
The Chinese have also heavily invested in ports in Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, and Oman, which are all part of the US security system in the Middle East.
The hard reality for Trump and his China hawks is that Chinese businesses are modernising European port infrastructure, adding value to the concerned countries and creating jobs.
And the same is often true of Chinese investment in other parts of the world.