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China Trends #2 - China’s Port Investment: The Flag Behind the Trade

China Trends #2 - China’s Port Investment: The Flag Behind the Trade
 Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies

China’s corporate giant COSCO Shipping Ports Limited has titled its 2018 annual report Strengthening Global Footprint. Indeed, China’s investment in overseas ports is one of the most tangible incarnations of the country’s expanding global footprint.

Because acquisitions of overseas ports happen simultaneously with a naval build-up of historical proportions and a sudden policy reversal on overseas bases, they raise questions regarding China’s strategic intentions. Should we think of port investment in terms of political control and influence or normal business relations? Does China intent to use military power to “securitize” the maritime trade that has ensured rapid growth and prosperity for the country’s coastal provinces since the launch of economic reforms at the end of the 1970s? 

The two largest companies that dominate Chinese overseas port acquisitions, COSCO and China Merchants Group, are driven by a logic of profit-making. In 2018, COSCO handled 118.8 million TEU at 36 ports worldwide, the equivalent of the combined contained throughput of Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen and Ningbo, the world’s four largest ports. 31.7 % of this total was managed in overseas ports, the equivalent of Singapore’s annual container traffic. The same year, China Merchants Group handled 20.66 million TEU in its overseas terminals, 18.9% of its total capacity. Because the revenues of terminal business fluctuate less than shipping, COSCO and China Merchants Group should be expected to continue their rapid international expansion.

In fact, the largest share of Chinese overseas investment in ports has taken the form of minority stakes. This comes with very little influence, if any, on the governance of ports. COSCO holds majority stakes in terminals in four ports only: Piraeus (100%), Abu Dhabi (90%), Zeebrugge (85%) and Valencia (51%). And for COSCO, Khalifa container terminals in Abu Dhabi represent the only greenfield investment in overseas ports. Similarly, the acquisition of a footprint in Europe and in the United States (Houston and Miami) by China Merchants Group was the result of the minority acquisition of 49% of Terminal Link from CMA-CGM. China Merchants Group holds only 33% of Djibouti’s Doraleh Container Terminal. China Merchants Group’s construction of a port in Hambantota (Sri Lanka), one of China’s most controversial overseas investment because of the debt-for-equity scheme that resulted in the takeover of the port operations for 99 years, is an exception rather than a rule.

China’s investment in overseas ports is one of the most tangible incarnations of the country’s expanding global footprint.

This issue of China Trends explores some of China’s debates regarding the business of port operations inside and outside China, crossing business interests and geopolitical logic. The distinction between actions serving China’s strategic ambition to become a leading military power by 2050 and normal profit-oriented business activities is not always simple and straightforward. 

Chinese analysts take a very geopolitical view of port investment in the Indian Ocean, stressing the resistance China encounters from India and the United States, detecting a "change of attitude" in potential recipient states when considering Chinese acquisitions, arguing that China now faces "geopolitical risk". As a response, rather than specific policy recommendations, they advocate incremental and multi-layered engagement with the coastal states in the Indian Ocean: more trade, more naval presence, more involvement in security and governance affairs, more engagement with regional institutions.

This logic of incremental engagement as a strategic principle also guides China’s reflections on overseas military bases. Chinese President Xi Jinping took the bold decision to put an end to years of debate regarding whether China should build bases to protect its "overseas interests". The articles translated for this issue of China Trends show how Xi’s decision has radically changed the tone and the direction of the discussion in China. Before Djibouti, the debate focused on the pros and cons of building military bases overseas, in particular from the perspective of the non-interference principle. Since Djibouti, the Chinese strategic community takes for granted that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – and especially the navy – is building a logistical support network to ensure the success of future operations to protect Chinese overseas interests. The discussion focuses on the practical difficulties of running overseas bases. And several authors ask the same question: how to ensure that the international community will accept China’s construction of overseas bases?

But there is also a domestic discussion about ports. Their contribution to China’s prosperity as the world’s largest trading nation is colossal. The State Oceanic Administration estimates that China’s "blue GDP" (encompassing all sectors of the maritime economy) represents 10% of the country’s GDP, and seven Chinese ports are in the world’s top ten. The growth of these ports has transformed urban life in coastal China. Shanghai, today the largest container port in the world with a container traffic of 40 million TEUs, managed only 2 million TEUs in 1996.

The discussion in China focuses on how to optimize the efficiency of domestic port operations. The obsession of the commentators is that Chinese domestic ports are "large but not strong", plagued by overcapacity and disorderly competition. China needs to manage the balance between cooperation and competition between ports that operate in the regional vicinity of each other, such as Shanghai and Ningbo-Zhoushan, or Guangzhou and Shenzhen. This is largely a question of administrative arrangements and bureaucratic efficiency. Chinese analysts discuss how to better think the relationship between state ownership and market forces, with the additional difficulty that the provincial governments and the municipalities rather than the central government are the key political authorities when it comes to port management in China. The key question is to move away from a growth model centered on throughput to a next phase of growth driven by quality upgrading of port operations.

Overall, this issue of China Trends illustrates the strategic importance of global maritime affairs for China, both from an economic and a security perspective. Military power will serve as a guarantee to protect China’s expanding global footprint and will need a support network to operate efficiently. However, China should be expected to only build new military facilities when there are concrete non-traditional threats against the country’s overseas interests – opportunities created by crises will be seized to continue the transformation of China’s security posture from a regional to a global one.


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