According to a late 2022 study by the U.S.-based national security and defense think tank Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), the number of Chinese-owned or operated ports worldwide has increased considerably.
China’s foothold in some 40 ports in Latin America from Peru to Mexico, combined with 11 satellite ground stations in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela, allows the country to have strategic locations in the Western Hemisphere, the SFS report indicates.
“China does not make random investments or choose geopolitical positions that aren’t aligned with its strategic objectives,” Daniel Pou, director of the Citizen Security Data Analysis Center of the Dominican Republic, told Diálogo on January 4.
Many of the Chinese state-owned companies involved in these infrastructure investment and development projects have ties to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the SFS report says. China’s military force, in support of Chinese companies’ economic expansion, has been cautiously moving forward for a long time, Uruguay’s content platform L21 reported.
Beijing’s port infrastructures are just pieces of its economic, political, and military expansion strategy to “become the great global hoarder of raw materials, especially Latin American resources,” Pou said. “China’s logic is not to help develop countries that establish alliances with Beijing, but rather long-term strategies that facilitate the development of its expansion, because it’s an expansionist policy. Latin America is at the mercy of Chinese capital.”
One of the major ports moving forward is the Chancay Multipurpose Port Terminal in Peru. The mega-terminal is set to become an exchange and distribution hub in the region, with high volumes of good transiting to and from the Pacific, but in principle it is designed to ship raw materials from Peruvian mining, Spanish magazine Cambio 16 reported.
This project, part of the Belt and Road initiative, will cause irreversible damage to the Santa Rosa wetlands, a key corridor of biodiversity in the central coast of Peru, bring artisanal fishing in that area to an end, and is already affecting soil stability, causing coastal erosion and the collapse of homes, BBC reported.
Two Chinese firms are also designing and building a fourth bridge over the Panama Canal, through which 5 percent of the world’s maritime trade transits, The Logistics World, an online directory of global logistics resources, reported. The project has been on hold since March 2020 and its funding structure is under evaluation by the Panamanian government.
The PLA has been seeking to establish a base in Panama since China’s investment company Hutchison Whampoa won concessions to operate two ports there in 1999, and in El Salvador since plans for a mega-project in La Unión were announced in 2018, L21 reported.
Concerns that Beijing could use strategic ports to host Chinese warships increased when Uruguay’s General Assembly approved the implementation of joint defense efforts with China, the SFS report indicates.
China has been building its navy up for decades to protect its interests worldwide. Chinese port terminals have commercial value but are also “triple use” in that they can serve for logistics support, intelligence gathering, and as options for future military bases, Chilean news site Mundo Marítimo reported.
“[Chinese] investments in port and airport infrastructure, although civilian in nature, are marked with a stamp of military hegemony […], establishing limitations to the country’s authorities on the strategic projects developed,” Pou said.
An example is Djibouti, located at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, Argentine financial site Más Inversiones reported. There, China built its first overseas military base.
The Chinese naval base in the Horn of Africa is steadily increasing its capacity with as many as 2,000 military personnel with arms, munitions, and armored combat vehicles, the Associated Press reported. China is also eager to put boots on the ground in ports in the Gulf of Guinea and Angola, AP reported.
Also of concern is Beijing’s increasing use of satellite ground stations in Latin America, SSF noted. Advancing China’s space program is a priority for its President Xi Jinping, who seeks to make his country a space power, Reuters reported.
“China cajoles [Latin America] and welcomes places where there is little capital flowing […] to have a monopoly of certain maritime routes; and that, in itself, is an advantage in military strategic terms,” Pou concluded.