The global economy relies heavily on maritime trade, with 90% of world trade transported by sea. This intricate network of shipping routes connects markets worldwide, facilitating the movement of finished goods, components, and commodities. However, the maritime trade industry is susceptible to various disruptions, such as pandemics, port bottlenecks, or incidents like large ships getting stuck in canals. While historical maritime embargoes were a feature of conflicts, today’s adversaries can exploit information warfare to paralyze shipping, making it a critical concern.
China has been actively expanding its influence in the maritime domain over the past three decades. It has acquired ownership or operational stakes in around 96 foreign ports globally, including recent acquisitions in Hamburg, Germany, and the Solomon Islands. While foreign ownership of ports is not inherently problematic, China’s approach raises concerns due to two key factors.
First, China has installed extensive and relatively opaque information-gathering infrastructure at strategic ports worldwide. Second, Chinese laws mandate that all Chinese companies operating abroad, whether private or state-owned, must collect and report intelligence on foreign entities to the Chinese government. Given Beijing’s increasingly adversarial stance toward the West, understanding the scope of Chinese infrastructure ownership and its intelligence-gathering capabilities is essential.
Of the world’s top 75 container ports outside of China, nearly half have some degree of Chinese ownership or operational control, allowing China to influence terminal access, supplies, dry docks, and storage facilities. More than half of China’s overseas assets are situated on major shipping lanes in regions like the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez Canal, Mediterranean Sea, and other critical waters.
Chinese dominance in shipping extends to the production of shipping containers and ship-to-shore cranes, further consolidating its maritime influence. Moreover, Chinese-owned ports often double as hubs for extensive data collection, intelligence-gathering, and surveillance activities. They utilize China’s logistical software system, LOGINK, to monitor various aspects of trade and maritime information, including vessel and cargo status, customs data, billing and payment records, geolocation data, pricing information, regulatory filings, and more. Even Chinese shipping cranes are under scrutiny as potential espionage tools.
This systematic data collection allows China to identify vulnerabilities in Western trade and supply chains and monitor the shipping of military supplies and components. China’s extensive naval presence globally is further bolstered by access to state-owned ports, enhancing its maritime reach. While China has only one foreign naval base in Djibouti, its commercial ports regularly host Chinese military vessels, potentially serving as resupply points or repair facilities during a conflict.
A fundamental issue lies in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policy to align all commercial activities with state interests. Chinese port, shipping, and logistics companies are legally required to gather information for the Chinese Communist Party. Furthermore, Chinese law eliminates the distinction between civilian and military activities, with all nominally civilian ports designed for potential military use. Chinese-owned assets must also support the military in the event of a conflict.
China’s control over trade information and port infrastructure grants it substantial advantages in peacetime. However, in a wartime scenario, it could exploit this control to disrupt the international economy selectively. By manipulating or withholding critical goods, delaying military components, or obstructing essential supplies, China could wield a stranglehold over global trade without resorting to traditional naval deployments.
To counter China’s maritime strategy, the United States and its allies must take decisive action. First, a comprehensive risk assessment of supply chain dependencies through Chinese-operated ports or nearby chokepoints is necessary. Strategies must be developed to safeguard U.S. commercial and military interests, including collaboration with allies to prevent China from manipulating shipping and trade data.
Second, deeper public-private partnerships are needed to protect key supply chains. This collaboration can provide insights into supply chain vulnerabilities and identify suspicious activities by adversaries.
Third, Congress should consider measures to sanction or remove critical Chinese technology products from U.S. ports, while encouraging allies to do the same. This could involve modernizing port infrastructure in exchange for decommissioning Chinese technology. With global enthusiasm for China’s Belt and Road infrastructure projects waning, the time is ripe for a U.S.-led effort to strengthen and protect core maritime infrastructure investments worldwide. While the United States should continue benefiting from maritime trade with China, it must also address the emerging risks posed by China’s dominance in maritime shipping and logistics. Taking proactive measures today is crucial to safeguarding the international economy in the future.