By John Hugh DeMastri
Daily Caller News Foundation

China is building an advanced surveillance network and supporting its navy through a growing system of ports in foreign countries, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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China currently owns or operates terminals in 96 ports in 53 countries, many of which perform maintenance on Chinese military vessels, as part of longstanding Chinese policy to expand the country’s influence, according to an April 2022 report by researchers at the U.S. Naval War College (USNWC) and Indiana University. These ports support the Chinese navy via logistics and intelligence support, but also provide an independent trade network should China ever be cut off by the West for taking aggressive action, such as an invasion of Taiwan, senior research fellow Brent Sadler of the Heritage Foundation, who previously served a 26-year career in the Navy which culminated in a role at the Pentagon’s China branch of the Navy, told the DCNF.

“These efforts do enable a global naval presence for sure, but it also builds in greater resilience to Western sanctions or economic statecraft should the [Chinese Communist Party] do something beyond the pale,” Sadler said.

Intelligence work “is one of the easiest, most effective, and least preventable uses of commercial port terminals and associated infrastructure [or] equipment, and probably much more relevant than whether those facilities could one day become [People’s Liberation Army] bases,” one of the report’s authors, Dr. Isaac Kardon, then of the USNWC and now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the DCNF.

“Chinese investments in ports and airfields should be viewed through the lens of economic [or] trade facilitation as well as military usefulness,” Sadler told the DCNF.

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Sadler noted that different facilities often accomplished different purposes, with the balance of some — like in the Solomon Islands — tipping toward military utility. In the small island nation of Kiribati, however, Chinese facilities contributed to Kiribati’s decision to halt recognition of Taiwan, Sadler said.

One example of China’s intelligence-gathering operation — which are not always covert — is the nonprofit logistics firm Logink, overseen by the Chinese Ministry of Transportation, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Logink gathers data obtained from public records in addition to the private data of hundreds of thousands of users at Chinese ports to form a comprehensive view of global trading networks, the WSJ reported. This information can be used to better understand both China’s own economy and that of foreign competitors, providing insights into the military logistics and national security concerns of rivals, like the U.S.

“The Chinese government makes use of civilian and dual-use capabilities to support expeditionary operations under the auspices of its military-civil fusion strategy,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) wrote in 2020. “China has released several laws and sets of technical standards to enable the PLA to leverage civilian firms, such as those operating roll-on/roll-off and container ships. Civilian entities are capable of supplementing capabilities for operations short of war and of fulfilling an emergency reserve function; however, they have important limitations that undercut their wartime utility.”

The USNWC/Indiana University report concurs with the USCC assessment that these “dual-use” ports would struggle to fulfill a wartime role, as they lack key technology and resources to provide support to an extended military conflict.

However, the use of these ports secures China’s military interests beyond simply projecting military power, Sadler told the DCNF, since it ingratiates China to smaller third-party powers that the U.S. has less significant relationships with.

“The US needs to be better engaged with potential CCP targets of influence and expose nefarious covert deals … [and] provide a better cost-proposition to the Chinese development and trade model — from the vantage of third parties the US has some work to do, but it should not enter into a competition that mimics the CCP’s approach.”

Trade is also central to China’s bid to distance itself from Russia and develop closer connections with countries that are traditionally U.S. allies, such as the EU — China’s largest trade partner — Japan and South Korea, according to the Financial Times (FT). It is unclear how much Chinese President Xi Jinping knew about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to invade Ukraine, but Chinese officials have been trying to distance themselves from their ally, telling European diplomats that the invasion is Putin’s responsibility and that both Europe and China would benefit from enhanced trade.

A European move toward China would represent a significant break with the U.S., causing a rift amongst allies, another long-term goal of Chinese foreign policy, FT reported.

The U.S. has been taking an increasingly anti-China stance following China’s aggressive response to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan — including military drills and a blockade of the island nation, which China considers part of its territory. A recent simulation by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a prominent foreign-policy think tank, found that while a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was unlikely to result in the island’s takeover, the results would be devastating for all parties.

The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a DCNF request for comment.

This story originally was published by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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