Study: "Belt and Road" Ports Align with China's Military Interests

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The Chinese-controlled port of Hambantota, Sri Lanka (file image)

By MarEx 2018-04-19 17:09:00

A new report by non-profit C4ADS suggests that China's "Belt and Road" seaport projects in the Indo-Pacific may be intended to serve strategic, military objectives. Based upon the unofficial views of Chinese academics, Beijing's "core interest" in maintaining access to sea lanes is a key part of China's Indo-Pacific development strategy, C4ADS says: these overseas ports may not be profitable, but they are a way to cultivate political influence, build infrastructure for long-range naval operations and "stealthily expand China's military presence."

In the report, C4ADS authors Devin Thorne and Ben Spevack compared Chinese officials' public statements and government documents with unofficial positions in books and articles by Chinese analysts, with a priority placed on academic journals with ties to the state and the Chinese Communist Party. While these Chinese analysts do not officially write on behalf of the state, their work is likely to reflect and influence internal government discussions, C4ADS asserts. 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is massive, with 15 port projects in the Indo-Pacific and a wide portfolio of other infrastructure investments. Officially, China denies any connections between BRI projects and its own strategic interests, and it advertises its investments as a "win-win" opportunity for "inclusive cooperation" with other nations, not a "tool of geopolitics." 

China depends upon shipping through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca for 80 percent of its oil supply, and in recent years, its warships have increased their presence in the region. Other regional actors - notably India - are concerned that China's ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan could be used to facilitate a heightened Chinese naval presence. Beijing formally denies that its strategic interests are involved in its investment strategy in the region; however, in a review of the literature, C4ADS found many instances in which Chinese scholars at government-aligned institutions suggest that China should defend its "core interests" by cultivating "strategic support states." In particular, Thorne and Spevak highlighted an academic position paper from 2015, in which 50 academics from Chinese research institutes suggested that China should develop these strategic ties by investing in public goods, thereby "making relevant countries believe China's benevolence." 

The authors also examined the ways in which China's "Belt and Road" port investments have affected development in Pakistan (the Port of Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota Port) and Cambodia (Koh Kong). All three are characterized by commercial unprofitability, a lease arrangement favoring Chinese control and the presence of Chinese Communist Party organizations, including the CCP United Front Work Department - all factors that could indicate a non-commercial objective, C4ADS asserts.