· Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Greece all taken
Far-reaching commercial activities raise question of whether port investments are linked to military purposes and represent a security risk in host countries
There is rising concern about whether China will use its commercial acquisitions of overseas ports for military purposes, under its drive to put civilian technology and resources to military use.
Under its trillion-dollar “Belt and Road Initiative” – a blueprint announced in 2013 to boost trade and connectivity in Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond – China has significantly increased its global investments, particularly in maritime infrastructure.
Pioneering Chinese companies such as Cosco Shipping Ports and China Merchants Port Holdings are on a march to acquire shares or sign deals to build terminals at seaports overseas.
Cosco began operating a container port in Piraeus in Greece in 2008, when the Greek government was near bankruptcy. Beijing has since become a big player in the European port business.
China has gained a foothold in Europe’s three largest ports: respectively Euromax in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, of which it owns 35 per cent; Antwerp in Belgium, in which it holds a 20 per cent stake; and Hamburg, Germany, where it is to build a new terminal.
A flood of Chinese investment helped to rejuvenate some of these ports. In Piraeus, for example, Chinese investment in 2016 led to increased trade: Piraeus was ranked seventh in Europe in 2017 by container throughput – up from eighth the year before – and recorded a 92 per cent increase in pre-tax profits.
But it is not always smooth sailing when Beijing reaches out to ports overseas with its deep pockets.
In Israel, China is building two new ports, in Haifa and Ashdod. Local academics have urged the Israeli government to assess how much China can be involved in its economy without compromising its security interests.
Those who believe Israel should conduct a national security review of the Chinese contract include Shaul Chorev, a reservist brigadier general with the Israel Defence Forces, former Israeli navy chief of staff and chairman of the country’s Atomic Energy Commission.
China’s leaders increasingly seek to leverage China’s growing economic, diplomatic and military clout to establish regional superiority and expand the country’s international influence,” Chorev said.
“The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is intended to develop strong economic ties with other countries, shape their interests to align with China’s, and deter confrontation or criticism of China’s approach to sensitive issues.”
There are increasing worries in the EU that China may use its involvement in European ports to exert political influence in individual member states, according to Frans-Paul van der Putten, a senior research fellow from Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
“China’s rapid advance into the European port sector has already created a backlash,” Van der Putten said. “It is one of the reasons European governments are increasingly suspicious of China’s economic influence, and why an EU-wide framework for foreign investment screening is being discussed.”
China’s port operation also triggered a backlash from the United States, because it threatened information and cybersecurity there, Gary Roughead, a former US chief of naval operations, said at a recent workshop organised by Israel’s University of Haifa and the Hudson Institute, a conservative US think tank.
“Chinese port operators will be able to monitor US ship movements closely, be aware of maintenance activities, have access to equipment moving to and from repair sites and interact freely with our crews over protracted periods,” Roughead said.
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