13 May 2022

Must-Read in International Security! “Pier Competitor: China’s Power Position in Global Ports”

Now making big waves… I’ve strongly encouraged and am deeply familiar with this body of work. Profs. Isaac Kardon and Wendy Leutert’s well-placed article is a cutting-edge piece of scholarship that elucidates important areas of China and its role in our world today. It probes the PRC “Port-folio” around the world with unique academic methodological discipline and open source data detail, and assesses military implications current and potential. Bravo Zulu to the authors!

Based my own earlier research on PLA Navy port calls during the early years of the post-2008 Gulf of Aden anti-piracy task forces, including with former CMSI affiliate Austin Strange; as well as other power projection, facilities access, and military operational issues, I find Isaac and Wendy’s argument to be highly compelling. I believe that the vast majority of specialists in this area would tend to concur. But please see and judge for yourself!

I hope folks can read the entire article, available ungated at https://direct.mit.edu/isec/article/46/4/9/111175/Pier-Competitor-China-s-Power-Position-in-Global. If anyone is unable to do so, however, the selected text below offers revealing military-focused points. I’ve bolded what I consider to be as key wording; and, in the most important cases, underlined it as well…

Isaac B. Kardon and Wendy Leutert, “Pier Competitor: China’s Power Position in Global Ports,” International Security 46.4 (Spring 2022): 9–47.  


China is a leader in the global transportation industry, with an especially significant position in ocean ports. A mapping of every ocean port outside of China reveals that Chinese firms own or operate terminal assets in ninety-six ports in fifty-three countries. An original dataset of Chinese firms’ overseas port holdings documents the geographic distribution, ownership, and operational characteristics of these ports. What are the international security implications of China’s global port expansion? An investigation of Chinese firms’ ties to the Party-state reveals multiple mechanisms by which the Chinese leadership may direct the use of commercial port assets for strategic purposes. International port terminals that Chinese firms own and operate already provide dual-use capabilities to the People’s Liberation Army during peacetime, establishing logistics and intelligence networks that materially enable China to project power into critical regions worldwide. But this form of networked state power is limited in wartime because it depends on commercial facilities in non-allied states. By providing evidence that overseas bases are not the sole index of global power projection capabilities, findings advance research on the identification and measurement of sources of national power. China’s leveraging of PRC firms’ transnational commercial port network constitutes an underappreciated but consequential form of state power projection.


On August 16, 2019, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type-052C destroyer Xi’an steamed into Egypt’s main port of Alexandria for a four-day technical stop.1 The Chinese warship berthed at a terminal that is operated and majority (over 80 percent) owned by two Chinese firms: the privately owned, Hong Kong-based Hutchison Ports, and the state-owned Shenzhen Yantai Port Group. With a People’s Republic of China (PRC) flag flying over the terminal, the Chinese sailors received a warm welcome from the PRC ambassador to Egypt, a throng of PRC citizens, and the Egyptian Navy commander of the adjacent Alexandria naval base. The PLAN destroyer then underwent specialized repairs at the large dry dock on site, loaded supplies and equipment, and replenished its fuel and stores.2

Operating as part of the 32nd PLAN task force in the region since 2009, Xi’an’s port call might appear entirely unremarkable: a routine episode for a navy that now operates regularly across the eastern Mediterranean and northern Indian Ocean region.3 Yet it is also a conspicuous display of the growing sophistication and scope of Chinese military operations abroad—achieved without a network of overseas bases and allies.4 Rather than calling at China’s sole overseas military base at Djibouti, on the other end of the Suez Canal and Red Sea, Xi’an used repair facilities at Alexandria to sustain its operations.5 Like other blue water navies, the PLAN depends on foreign commercial ports for logistics and husbanding services that keep its ships afloat and crews supplied, rested, and combat-ready.6 Yet unlike other navies, the PLAN enjoys privileged access to dual-use facilities that Chinese firms own and operate overseas.7 

What are the international security implications of China’s global port expansion? We argue that China’s leveraging of PRC firms’ transnational commercial port network—most evident in the PLAN’s use of commercial ports for military logistics and intelligence functions—constitutes an underappreciated but consequential form of state power projection. We investigate this phenomenon by conducting the first systematic empirical study of PRC firms’ overseas port assets and how they are utilized.8 Specifically, we map Chinese firms’ global “port-folios,” investigate their ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the state in China (the Party-state),9 and analyze the technical and functional characteristics of their port assets as well as related PLAN activities. We find that China’s global port expansion already enables vital military functions. … … …


Today, China’s growing overseas interests face a higher probability of conflict threatening them. In the post-Cold War era, the relatively open and secure global economic system initially made it unnecessary for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to emulate earlier rising powers’ attempts to force open foreign markets or seize resources overseas. But this purported Pax Americana now appears more risky than rewarding to China as “great power competition” with the United States intensifies.21 Chinese leaders now perceive dependence on U.S. military power to ensure their country’s maritime transport, energy supplies, and overseas market access as a profound strategic vulnerability.22 Meanwhile, growing numbers of Chinese citizens and assets abroad increase the country’s “attack surface,” exposing China to greater risk of harm from natural disaster, political disruption, or hostile foreign action.23 Real and perceived security threats to these overseas interests expand demand for PLA protection, which China has duly authorized and deployed.24 As one prominent Chinese strategic analyst puts it: “Wherever Chinese interests go, our security boundary must also go.”25 In practice, this means that when PRC firms “go out” to own or operate a major port terminal, the PLAN is responsible for securing both the terminal and the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that convey trade between PRC firms and China.

The PLA has only one military base abroad, so it must find alternative ways to execute its mission of protecting China’s overseas interests. Commercial port facilities enable considerable military logistics and intelligence capabilities in peacetime. In addition, the global scale and distribution of PRC firms’ network of ports abroad establish a degree of Party-state control over China’s commercial and military supply chains—as well as those of other states. This network also allows the PLA to sustain its growing peacetime operations across the globe and closely monitor those of others.

In wartime scenarios, however, the military utility of PRC firms’ overseas ports is less certain. China’s lack of allies remains a major obstacle because a host state’s decision to permit military use of a port on its soil would almost certainly require it to assume a belligerent status in an international conflict.26 If armed conflict were to occur, China may not have access to port facilities in states seeking to maintain neutrality. Beyond this political challenge, the technical limitations of most commercial ports further impede their military utility. Container terminals employ specialized handling equipment that is unsuitable for naval ships. Moreover, China would lack the hardened naval facilities, specialized parts, ordnance, equipment, and trained on-site personnel requisite for any complex or contested military operation.27 Chinese firms’ port network thus produces a distinct but restricted form of power projection: enabling the PLA to operate with growing scope and scale in peacetime, but providing only limited combat support in wartime.

Not all individual ports need to be located strategically for them to have a strategic effect in concert. Still, at least some combination of regional assets must afford ready access to a contested arena for the network to support meaningful power projection. For example, for most military operations of sufficient complexity, one or more of the regional ports must have a proximate airfield, specialized fuels and parts, dry dock facilities, roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) piers suitable for military vehicles and equipment, and other technical characteristics.40 Such requirements vary by region and strategic contingency.41 Further afield, a more robust array of facilities are required for any substantial military power to be generated and sustained.42 …

To assess the security implications of PRC companies’ overseas port-folios, we employ a three-part empirical strategy.44 First, we map every ocean port outside of China in which a Chinese firm owns or operates one or more terminals.45 We identify ninety-six ports in fifty-three countries that meet these criteria and analyze their geographic distribution, ownership, and operational characteristics.46 Next, we investigate the leading PRC firms’ ties to the CCP and the state bureaucracy it directs (the “Party-state”). We do this by analyzing defined organizational and legal mechanisms of influence extending from the Party-state to firms. Finally, we examine the actual and desired uses of this port network—and its limitations—focusing on observed functions and technical characteristics of the terminals themselves, as well as the international security implications of the broader port network. …

Chinese Companies’ Global Port Positions

Figure 1.

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SOURCES: Kardon and Leutert, “PRC Firm-Owned/Operated Port Terminals Worldwide”; “Mapcreator” (Eindhoven, Netherlands: Mapcreator) https://mapcreator.io/; and OpenStreetMap contributors, “OpenStreetMap,” https://www.openstreetmap.org. …

China’s “Maritime Lifeline” Sea Lines of Communication

Figure 2.

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SOURCES: Kardon and Leutert, “PRC Firm-Owned/Operated Port Terminals Worldwide”; “Mapcreator”; and OpenStreetMap contributors, “OpenStreetMap.” …

Greater PRC firm operational control thus supports greater potential for military use of commercial terminals. The conditions of highest operational control occur when the PRC firm is the only operator at the port facility, which is the case at twenty-nine (30 percent) of the ninety-six ports.61 If no other firms are present at the entire port facility, the operator enjoys substantial discretion to use the piers, warehousing, and port equipment according to its preferences. While the commercial desirability of majority ownership and sole operation may vary depending on a firm’s financial and technical conditions, such positions provide higher levels of operational control that are more useful militarily.

Specific shore facilities are required for a commercial port to be used for military purposes. In general, civil port infrastructure can fulfill limited, routine military demands for refueling and resupplying naval vessels with food, water, and basic goods readily available through commercial husbanding services. Some ports have dry dock and shipyard facilities that enable more complex ship repairs and maintenance. According to PLA logistics officers, however, more significant military use would require “combat-ready terminals” that feature RO-RO berths built at a higher standard than those used for passenger automobiles,70 a minimum 10-meter berth depth, assembly sites and storage facilities greater than 120,000 square meters, cold chain storage for overseas replenishment, and high-quality service roads that can bear heavy equipment.71 Nearby airfields are also highly desirable to rapidly move personnel and equipment (even if at greater expense and smaller scale) in order to support military operations. We are unable to analyze all these requirements because publicly available data about them are limited. But it is evident that the full panoply of optimal military facilities is not available at the majority of PRC firms’ port terminals.

Party-state direction and subsidies are necessary for enterprises to properly construct ports, even domestic ones, that can support intensive military use.72 Firms’ independent demand for more exacting and expensive military specifications is low because commercial vessels and cargoes have different requirements.73 China’s ongoing civil-military integration program, detailed in the following section, includes efforts to build and maintain commercial ports to military specifications.74 Strong demand for pier space and other terminal facilities makes it unlikely that the Chinese military will regularly use the busiest commercial ports.75

Even ports without dedicated military facilities have commercial infrastructure that make their occasional military use possible or desirable. Examples include approach channel and berthing space of the specific dimensions that major PLA surface vessels need to safely navigate to and berth at the port. The PLAN’s largest commissioned ship, the Shandong aircraft carrier, requires a minimum of 315 meters length and 9.1 meters draft to berth at a given port.76 According to our data, eighty-three (86 percent) of the ninety-six Chinese firm port terminals abroad meet this basic physical requirement. At other facilities that lack adequate pier space or safe approaches, anchoring a large vessel offshore and servicing it with smaller boats is possible, albeit inefficient and unsuitable for combat scenarios. Most commercial ports have latent potential to provide at least basic services to the entire PLAN fleet because of the large size of modern container and tanker vessels; however, the equipment used for these specialized commercial vessels is of less utility to warships. Nevertheless, some combination of several ports in a given area of operations is typically sufficient to fulfill most peacetime military requirements.

Organizational and Legal Mechanisms of State Influence

The Chinese Party-state’s capacity to utilize PRC firms’ commercial assets for military purposes is controversial and difficult to assess given a lack of reliable public information.77 Considering both formal and informal mechanisms by which such influence could occur, our analysis reveals a Party-state that retains singular control over the political-legal system and manages key levers of the economy to promote strategic goals. We identify multiple organizational and legal mechanisms by which China may coordinate or coerce its firms to serve state directives. But we cannot definitively conclude that the Party-state directed Chinese companies to acquire commercial port assets with the express intention of using them for military purposes. Notably, PRC firms’ expansion into port assets abroad preceded a number of the organizational and legal mechanisms that formally enable their dual use (see below and online appendix table A). This sequence supports a provisional assessment that centrally initiated efforts to extract military utility from PRC companies’ overseas port terminals are secondary to the largely commercial drivers of their initial acquisition.

Legally, China has enacted defense mobilization and transportation laws and regulations that directly authorize the use of privately held assets. PRC authorities have also acted to better integrate civilian assets in the transport sector into military planning by requiring Chinese firms to build and maintain infrastructure and workforces that can accommodate requests for military use. The National Defense Mobilization Law (“mobilization law”),89 National Defense Transportation Law (“transportation law”),90 and associated implementing regulations clearly express the Party-state’s intent to employ civilian assets for defense purposes.91

The 2017 transportation law defines military and state authority to determine when and how civilian assets are employed for national defense. The legislation and its implementing regulations obligate Chinese companies to provide logistical support for PLA forces at home and abroad, directing “large and medium-sized transportation enterprises to organize the construction of strategic projection support forces [i.e., civilian ships and aircraft carrying personnel and supplies for the PLA], strengthen strategic power projection capabilities, and provide effective support for the rapid organization of long-distance and large-scale defense transportation.”92 The law mandates that “Chinese enterprises (and their overseas agencies) engaged in the international transportation business shall provide for the supply and support of ships, aircraft, vehicles, and personnel of China’s military operations.”93 The law also stipulates mechanisms for PLA access and use of PRC firm assets in foreign jurisdictions.94 Further, the law provides that “the military, if necessary, can station military representatives in relevant transportation enterprises.”95 PLA personnel may therefore be embedded within PRC firms to coordinate firm-military interactions, manage PLA equipment and supplies on site, and even collect intelligence. While firms do not publicize such personnel appointments or uses of corporate assets, there are manifest legal grounds for such activities and a clear inferential basis for assuming direct, sustained PLA access to PRC firm networks.

The 2010 mobilization law establishes a system for state appropriation of civilian assets. The law “adheres to the principle of combining peace with war and combining military with civilians.”96 This principle of integrating civilian and military functions and assets is to be implemented under the “unified leadership” of the CCP with the goal of “long-term preparation” and “orderly efficiency” in national defense mobilization. On a practical level, the law establishes a system for maintaining and transferring “strategic material reserves” from enterprises to the military, thus enabling state organs to task enterprises with storing, maintaining, and distributing military supplies at overseas facilities. Another provision stipulates that cooperating enterprises “shall enjoy subsidies or other preferential policies,” underscoring the material and political incentives (and disincentives) that the Party-state can apply to influence firm activities.

Other regulations and industry measures complement these pieces of national legislation. The Central Military Commission and the State Council issued standing defense mobilization regulations in 2003 expressly authorizing the utilization of civil transportation capacity. The State Council amended these regulations in 2011 and 2019 to include more detailed and actionable measures for military utilization of civilian port, airport, rail, and road facilities.97 Civilian leaders must invoke these authorities, but the regulations contain no stipulations that permit enterprises to deny military requests, even in peacetime. Other long-standing legislation confirms this authority: “The State may, in light of the need of mobilization and according to law, requisition the equipment, installations, and means of transportation and other material of organizations and individuals.”98

Even if PRC firms will not profit financially from allowing the military to use their scarce pier time, supplies, or warehouse space for noncommercial purposes, they are legally obliged to do so. The upshot of these legal measures is that “as long as there are Chinese companies, there will be a forward transportation support point for warships,” according to Deng Xianwu, captain of a PLAN amphibious transport dock vessel.99 Whether enthusiastically or grudgingly, industry groups such as the China Port Association have proposed mechanisms by which the military can use port assets more efficiently.100 According to PLA analysts, any Chinese military activities in foreign countries are predicated on strong civilian and commercial presence and cooperation: “We should place civil affairs and economics front and center. We must mix the military among civilians and use civilians to conceal the military.”101 Rather than raise international threat perceptions with overt shows of military presence, the PLA may opt to embed plainclothes personnel into PRC firms and use nominally commercial warehousing, communications, and other equipment to quietly meet military needs.

Recent organizational changes in the Chinese military better prepare PLA units to directly employ civilian assets. The ongoing national program of “military-civilian fusion” aims to fully integrate civilian technologies and assets into military modernization.102 The 2017 establishment of the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development, a standing CCP body with authority and resources to direct commercial activity in this domain, is one example of several major organizational moves involving the PLA that are driving this integration. The PLA itself has also adopted a variety of organizational reforms to enable it to better “fuse” with civilian assets, such as the 2016 establishment of a National Defense Mobilization Department (“mobilization department”) and Logistics Support Department (“logistics department”).103 Elevated to the central level, these commands better position the PLA to formulate and implement “top-level design” of a coordinated system for developing and maintaining civilian assets for military use.104 The upgraded logistics department has assumed greater leadership of domestic and overseas facilities management and international military engagement.105 Recognizing the strengths of China’s commercial transport infrastructure, this new PLA department is “outsourcing logistical support to the civilian sector wherever operationally feasible.”106 The defense mobilization regulations cited above authorize these military organizations to engage directly with enterprises to utilize their overseas assets under defined conditions. The small number of firms that own and operate most of China’s overseas port facilities simplifies the PLA’s organizational task of finding civilian capacity and integrating it into defense mobilization planning and military logistics.

Examples of crisis response in other issue areas affirm the Chinese Party-state’s ability to direct firm behavior. In 2015, Chinese leaders arrested extreme volatility on domestic stock exchanges in part by prohibiting SOEs from selling shares for six months.107 In 2019, China directed SOEs to support social stability during protests in Hong Kong by boosting investment and strengthening control over assets there to increase employment and calm financial markets.108 Most recently, Chinese leaders have leveraged SOEs to coordinate the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic by providing emergency relief, building hospitals, ensuring food supplies, developing treatments and vaccines, and coordinating the resumption of industrial production.109 Given the key role of central SOEs, particularly in China’s defense industry and other strategic sectors, the government would predictably turn to these firms during international security crises such as inter-state war, internal conflicts, or natural disasters.

Security Implications and Strategic Intentions

Chinese naval forces already employ PRC firms’ port network abroad to project military power without the more costly and visible footprint of permanent bases. The PLAN regularly visits overseas ports, including Chinese company owned and operated facilities, and it conducts military exercises with a growing array of host states. The growing scope and sophistication of PLA operations abroad is a source of considerable concern for many foreign states, which interpret the PRC’s ostensible efforts to “protect China’s overseas interests” as a direct or indirect security threat. Whether or not China’s emerging power projection is intended defensively, the security dilemma it generates risks spiraling tensions that are especially acute between the United States and China.110

Increased scope and intensity of global military operations

The PLAN’s operations are swiftly expanding beyond the Indo-Pacific and into the Atlantic and polar regions.111 Doing so without a network of bases, the force’s logistics requirements depend on intensive use of commercial port facilities overseas. The PLAN has made one or more calls to refuel, resupply, and “show the flag” for diplomacy in at least one-third of PRC companies’ overseas ports, 69 percent of which (twenty-two of thirty-two) hosted their first PLAN port call after 2012. In at least nine ports, PLAN warships have undergone significant repairs or maintenance for vessels and equipment by making a “technical stop.”112 All these technical stops have occurred since 2017 and only on the route from China across the Indian Ocean and into the Mediterranean—the PRC’s “lifeline SLOC” (see figure 2 and online appendix table B). Given this trend toward more intensive use of commercial facilities and the active efforts to “fuse” the military with civilian capacity, this pattern will likely expand to many of the other sixty-four ports for which there is no publicly documented PLA visit. Chinese military ships have already called in all but four of the fifty-three countries in which PRC companies’ port assets are located. This pattern suggests that the presence of Chinese firms in a state’s ports and logistics sector may increase the likelihood of a PLAN visit, even if PRC firms do not own or operate the specific terminal at which the ship calls.113

The operational routines developed during PLAN visits facilitate the use of PRC firms’ commercial terminals overseas if future crises or conflicts erupt. Ever since the deputy chief of the PLAN Operations Department declared in 2010 that “Chinese enterprise facilities in overseas ports are the next step in building an overseas support system,” the PLAN has increased its focus on these assets.114 Although few open sources discuss pier-side activities, Chinese media reports and official press releases confirm that naval vessels and personnel routinely visit PRC firm owned and operated ports and use their infrastructure to refuel, resupply, and conduct limited repairs. During such visits, PLA personnel interact with Chinese and local service providers, inspect facilities (including fuel, water, power, and airfield infrastructure), and build local knowledge and relationships. This interaction could aid PLA coordination of logistics and other needs during future overseas operations.

The PLA almost certainly collects intelligence and conducts surveillance from overseas commercial ports.Although open sources do not detail intelligence operations, terminal operators routinely document valuable and unique information about port facilities and activities.115 Chinese firms and state entities lead the development of sophisticated logistics data management systems for tracking ship routes, cargoes, and personnel.116 Some PLA analysts even explicitly mention technical collection methods from commercial ports, indicating that such intelligence activities are likely already occurring.117 For instance, signals intelligence and other sensors or equipment may be discreetly placed in PRC firms’ port terminals abroad, or PLA or intelligence personnel may be embedded in PRC firms’ staff.

New overseas interests and military missions

The PLA’s growing intent and capability for power projection is unsurprising given the global scope of PRC economic and political interests. Officially, the “security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication, as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad” is an explicit “strategic task” for the PLA.118 According to China’s 2019 Defense White Paper, the PLA is actively “developing overseas logistical facilities” to “address deficiencies in overseas operations and support” for contingencies including “overseas evacuation.”119 Crises requiring the rapid rescue of Chinese citizens from dangerous locations provide one reason for an increased military presence overseas.120 A lack of overseas bases, together with longstanding deficiencies in strategic lift capabilities to deliver PLA forces in time and at scale, constrain the PLA’s capacity to conduct such operations effectively.121 These acknowledged shortfalls motivate Chinese military planners to seek fuller utilization of commercial ports to execute their mission to protect China’s overseas interests.122

Chinese strategists and officials are aware of how other states use maritime power to mitigate threats to their overseas interests. They cite Great Britain and the United States as evidence of how control over vital maritime passages, facilitated by regional basing arrangements, enable a state to pursue and defend its interests abroad.123 In particular, PRC leaders today view U.S. maritime dominance as a primary security threat. The U.S. Navy’s long-standing intent to control the globe’s “sixteen vital chokepoints” raises particular concerns for China.124 “In seeking to control them in peacetime,” explains a leading PLAN analyst, “the U.S. is in reality creating for itself an advantageous strategic situation. In wartime, it would be able to ensure at fairly small cost that the U.S. and its allies could use the ocean without impediment while preventing the enemy from doing so.”125 PRC firms’ dominant international port network also builds resilience against possible U.S. coercion by fostering dynamics of economic dependence that favor China.126 Specifically, China’s power position in global ports conceivably provides the PRC with retaliatory coercive capabilities of its own through delaying, degrading, or otherwise disrupting the maritime trade flows of other states or regions.

Although China has established one military base in Djibouti and will likely try for more, intense international pushback makes it unlikely that it will successfully develop a large, global base network. Some states will interpret any Chinese basing expansion efforts as aggressive and are likely to take corresponding military and political countermeasures. For example, Chinese analysts expect that overt militarization of China’s commercial presence in Pakistan would prompt India to balance aggressively against China, moving from nonalignment to alignment with the United States.127 Establishing bases and deploying PLA capabilities to foreign states would likely trigger local countermeasures. For example, the United States might make additional navy deployments, retarget its theater and anti-ship missile capabilities, and expand its antiaircraft batteries.128 The wider political impact of an observed militarization of Chinese facilities overseas would be damaging for the Belt and Road Initiative, and it would contradict China’s narrative of peaceful development.

Building a global network of overseas bases is even less appealing for China because an attractive alternative is available. Chinese companies’ large holdings of commercial assets abroad in critical infrastructure, especially ports, can support logistics, intelligence, and other military missions cheaply and without the geopolitical consequences that dedicated overseas bases would trigger. PLA strategists recognize that PRC firms’ infrastructure portfolios such as ports offer a strategic opportunity for the Chinese military to achieve security objectives without formal bases. PLA logistics officers even argue that China’s networks overseas “create opportunities for firms to participate in or service military operations and provide a platform for the military to leverage the power of businesses.”129 These officers advise the PLA to “use market economic means, and adopt commercial contracting methods to give full play to the advantages of China’s overseas enterprises by sharing their equipment and thereby materially guaranteeing that our military can conduct overseas military operations.”130 Capacity available elsewhere may offset the potential deficits of any individual terminal, as long as other ports in the network offer necessary facilities. Table 3 summarizes PLAN activities and the attributes of PRC companies’ ports that support various military uses.


This article analyzed China’s demonstrated ability to use its firms’ overseas commercial port assets for military functions. As essential nodes in the global transport of goods, ports serve a vital military purpose by undergirding the logistics that enable the PLA to project power regionally and globally. To evaluate the international security implications of China’s global port expansion, we mapped and assessed the port-folios of all PRC firms that own and operate terminals overseas. Although the Party-state has varying ties with each global port conglomerate, it possesses multiple organizational and legal mechanisms of influence over all of them. The attributes and distribution of these ports, and the Party-state’s institutionalized influence on the PRC firms that own and operate them, allow the PLA to use this network for military operational and strategic purposes.

As China joins the ranks of great powers pursuing commercial and military advantage across the seven seas, the potential for this networked mode of power projection looms ever larger. We have argued that assessments of state power projection capability centered on overseas military bases are incomplete. Our findings suggest that China can project substantial naval power beyond its borders without developing a large, global network of military bases. The PLA already has a track record of using Chinese commercial port facilities for logistics and likely also for intelligence functions. Chinese military officials and analysts indicate that such utilization will continue and expand in scope and sophistication. Such power projection can be understood as China’s next-best solution: electing to use the substantial assets it already has (i.e., commercial ports) rather than seeking to build the worldwide military base network that PLA planners might prefer.

China’s capability and evident willingness to project power from its firms’ burgeoning port network is already reshaping the international security environment. Chinese companies now own and operate ports across every major region and waterway, and control over these assets is highly concentrated among a few key players that are subject to multiple mechanisms of Party-state influence. Chinese firms’ rapid expansion in the global port industry creates the conditions for embedding China’s military capability within non-Chinese, nonmilitary settings around the world. Yet few states have been willing to block PRC firms from operating or acquiring maritime assets, despite evident security externalities. Neither just one nor several states can sharply limit the power projection capability that PRC firms’ overseas port assets enable. There is neither a single node in this distributed, decentralized network that uniquely produces its coercive capabilities, nor any one that can be taken off-line to undermine its overall functioning.

While analysis of power projection typically only addresses combat power, peacetime functions like logistics and intelligence are fundamental military missions that underpin wartime activities. Chinese companies’ control over international port assets in wartime or other crisis scenarios remains incomplete and vulnerable to foreign military and host state action alike. A host state could seize, nationalize, suspend, delay, or even stop operations at Chinese firm port facilities. Changing governments and geopolitical circumstances present distinct risks, especially given the PRC’s lack of formal military alliances and status of forces agreements. In addition, multiple operational measures could quickly limit a commercial port’s utility: Mining or scuttling a vessel in an approach channel could render an entire port inoperable, while striking nearby transportation infrastructure would limit support and supplies from inland roads and airfields. Technical challenges further limit the PLAN’s ability to fully service military vessels in many commercial ports (particularly in specialized and automated container facilities), while lack of force protection and hardened facilities makes civilian anchorages more susceptible to direct strikes.

China’s leadership can still use PRC firms’ transnational network of assets for coercive purposes in peacetime competition. Although such nonmilitary “weaponization” remains largely hypothetical, Chinese firms’ ascendance in global maritime trade and transportation creates the latent capacity for it. For example, China is uniquely positioned to exploit U.S. supply-chain vulnerabilities.131 In April 2020, Xi Jinping instructed the CCP Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission to “tighten the dependence of the international industrial supply chain on China and form a strong counter-measure and deterrent capability for outsiders to artificially cut off supply.”132 Without meaningful U.S. ownership or control of the ports, shipping, manufacturing, and logistics underpinning the global maritime trade and transport network, flows of goods vital to U.S. economic health and military capabilities are at risk of disruption. PRC firms’ dominant network position affords the Party-state a range of options apart from military power projection to delay, degrade, or otherwise impede such critical flows of goods, using plausibly deniable commercial disruptions (i.e., denying port calls, misdirecting cargoes, delaying or halting terminal operations)The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated efforts in China to exert greater control over supply chains and their maritime links, and it exacerbated existing U.S. vulnerabilities in this domain.133

Other states that have firms with internationally distributed, large-scale transnational networks of commercial assets are unlikely to use them for overseas power projection. For example, Dubai Ports World is a subsidiary of the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned Dubai World and owns and operates terminal assets in fifty ports worldwide.134 Port of Singapore Authority, another state-owned firm, owns and operates terminals in forty ports worldwide and ranks second behind COSCO in global container throughput.135 Among privately owned firms, Japanese global port operators (NYK Line, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, Ltd.) and the Korean shipper HMM Company are part of large industrial conglomerates with diverse assets across the transportation sector. These firms’ networks of overseas commercial ports meet most of the basic conditions for power projection (see table 1), but their home states do not evidently possess geostrategic interests motivating such use. Chinese leaders’ perception of mounting threats to overseas interests currently renders China the only plausible user of this networked form of power projection.

Future research could analyze the potential and limits of power projection involving other transnational commercial networks, both within and beyond the maritime domain. In the telecommunications industry, for example, the Chinese firm Huawei has already raised concerns that its 5G hardware could be used to collect intelligence, surveil, or otherwise pose security risks.136 Like global ports, the distributed nature of telecommunications networks and their large, redundant scale facilitate their utilization by the state for military and surveillance purposes. In addition, empirical analysis of the contracts and leases governing individual port operations would illuminate the prior agreements that may govern PLA use of overseas commercial port facilities in the event of a conflict or crisis. Regardless of what those closely held arrangements may be, the observed network already creates new and expanded capabilities for China’s peacetime projection of military power.