Of Ports and Arms – China’s Strategic Reach

Published Indrastra Global- 12 Jul 2020


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 exchange of goods between countries through own or another nation’s flag-bearing ships.[1] 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 which would if required command the seas in times to come. Soon after taking over as Chairman in 2013, Xi Jinping has called for China to become a maritime power and has laid importance on the seas for development of his country’s economic power.[2] 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 emphasizing 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, and participate in international maritime cooperation and build strategic logistic sites for marine power.”[3]

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 of 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.[4]

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 connect 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, and 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 the influence of China[5]

US Ports

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.[6] 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 Harbor 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).[7]

A 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.[8]

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%).[9]

African Ports

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).

European Ports

Port                                                                                                     Country

Piraeus, Piraeus Container Terminal                                                 Greece            

Zeebrugge, Zeebrugge Terminals NV                                                Belgium                     

Valencia, Noatum Container Terminal                                              Spain                          

Casablanca, Somaport                                                                        Morocco                     

Dunkirk, Terminal des Flandres                                                         France                        

Vado Ligure, Vado Reefer Terminal                                                  Italy                            

Bilbao, Noatum Container Terminal                                                 Spain  

Rotterdam, Euromax Terminal                                                          Netherlands                

Ambarli Kumport                                                                               Turkey                        

Le Havre, Terminal Nord, Terminal de France                               France

Marsaxlokk, Malta Freeport Terminal                                              Malta                          

Marseille Fos Eurofos                                                                       France                        

Nantes, Terminal du Grand Ouest                                                      France                        

Antwerp, Antwerp Gateway                                                               Belgium                      

Port Said, Suez Canal Container Terminal                                         Egypt              

Tanger Med, Eurogate Tanger       Morocco                                                                                                   

South Pacific

Vanuatu-Beijing-funded wharf in Luganville.

PNG-Chinese-developed port on Manus Island, Chinese development of Wewak, Kikori and Vanimo harbours

Latin America & Caribbean

In Panamá, the Chinese company Landbridge Group is building the Panamá Colón Container Port, a terminal for neopanamax 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 fishmeal.

Indo Pacific

Port                                                                                                     Country         

Port of Chittagong                                                                              Bangladesh                

Colombo Harbour                                                                              Sri Lanka                   

Koh Kong New Port                                                                           Cambodia                   

Darwin Port                                                                                        Australia                     

Doraleh Multipurpose Port                                                              Djibouti                      

Khalifa container terminals                                                             Abu Dhabi

Al Duqm Port & Drydock                                                                  Oman                         

Port of Gwadar                                                                                   Pakistan                      

Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port (Hambantota Port)       Sri Lanka                   

Kuantan Port                                                                                       Malaysia                     

Kyaukpyu Deep Sea Port                                                                   Myanmar                    

Melaka Gateway                                                                                 Malaysia                     

Port of Muara                                                                                      Brunei                        

Port of Payra                                                                                       Bangladesh                

Port of Tanjun 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,[10] 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 and Arms- An 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 land locked countries that received arms and ammunition from China have contiguous boundaries with Coastal nations, which in turn are beneficiaries of Chinese arms export. (Bolivia, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Laos, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, South Sudan, Zambia)

– One double land locked country Uzbekistan is surrounded by 6 land locked countries out of which 5 are recipients of arms from China.

41Countries 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.

9 Land Locked Countries with neighbours having access to Sea Ports and also receiving Chinese Arms

Bolivia, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Laos, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, South Sudan, Zambia

9 Land Locked Countries receiving Chinese arms via non-sea routes

Afghanistan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, 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 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 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 a 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 which 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.”

[1] Alfred Thayer Mahan. The Influence of Sea Power upon History  (1890). Chapter 1.


[2] Zachary Keck. Alfred Thayer Mahan With Chinese Characteristics. The Diplomat. 01 August 2013. https://thediplomat.com/2013/08/alfred-thayer-mahan-with-chinese-characteristics/ (Accessed 04 Jul 2020)

[3] Ministry of Defense, “The People’s Republic of China,” The White Paper of the People’s Republic of China, 2015.

[4] Degang Sun. China’s Soft Military Presence in the Middle East. 11 March 2015.

https://www.mei.edu/publications/chinas-soft-military-presence-middle-east (Accessed 01 Jul 2020)

[5] [The investments/acquisition of ports/ port facilities by Chinese state owned or private enterprises has been extensively covered and documented in the media, therefore, referencing of sources of information with respect to various ports is not being done in this article.]

[6] China’s COSCO Shipping wins U.S. security clearance for OOIL deal. Reuters. 08 Jul 2018.

https://in.reuters.com/article/us-ooil-m-a-cosco-ship-hold/chinas-cosco-shipping-wins-u-s-security-clearance-for-ooil-deal-idINKBN1JY0D7 (Accessed 03 Jul 2020)

[7] Jared Vineyard.  U.S. Forces China Out of Port of Long Beach Terminal Ownership. Universal Cargo.15 October  2019. https://www.universalcargo.com/u-s-forces-china-out-of-port-of-long-beach-terminal-ownership/ (Accessed 01 Jul 2020)

[8] Ports of Tacoma and Seattle join West Coast ports in urging President Trump to pursue fair and mutually beneficial trade agreements. The Northwest Sea Port Alliance. 23 Sep 2019.

https://www.nwseaportalliance.com/news/9232019/ports-tacoma-and-seattle-join-west-coast-ports-trade-impacts (Accessed 05 Jul 2020)

[9] 8ibid.

[10] SIPRI Arms Transfers Database. https://www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers (Accessed 30 Jun 2020)