China aims to thwart the U.S. military from using strategically significant ports around the world, U.S. officials and analysts said yesterday. China hopes to do this by investing aggressively in overseas infrastructure projects, the experts said.
“Their single aspiration is to elevate their own status and capacity on a global scale,” said Chad Sbragia, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, during a Thursday House Transportation subcommittee hearing. “What it does mean is that they will have the global military where the U.S. essentially may have no safe harbors.”
Sbragia aired that warning amid the worry that China can use its economic leverage to lock out the U.S. Navy from forward ports. His testimony underscored fears that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative is designed to give leverage to the Chinese military if the United States tries to deploy forces into the Indo-Pacific region in a crisis.
“It will not look like it did in the past, we will have to move across a space an entire way [that] could be contested both for ourselves and our allies from the start and in all domains,” Sbragia testified.
Chinese state-owned companies are investing in ports around the world as part of a so-called Maritime Silk Road that Xi maintains is “in line with interests of all countries.” President Trump’s administration regards the initiative as a “predatory” lending plan, as China loans money to impoverished countries and then gains control of key ports and railways.
“There are two concerns about these investments,” said Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs, the top Republican on the Subcommittee for Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. “First, the dual commercial and military uses of these assets; second, that the debt incurred by these countries will tie them to China in ways that will facilitate China’s international pursuits and potentially inhibit U.S. overseas operations.”
Military officials agreed that China is trying to crowd Americans out of the ports at the chokepoints of global shipping.
“We just have to be present there — not just watching but actually present,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Giovanni Tuck, who oversees military logistics for the Joint Chiefs. “And this is now a whole of government approach on how we actually make sure that we have the access that we need.”
China has established one overseas military base in Djibouti, an East African country on the waterway that connects the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. China sees the port in Djibouti, which also hosts an American port, as a “test case” for how to militarize other ports around the world, according to the Pentagon adviser.
“I’ve talked to the Chinese military, personally, about this issue they have aspiration to do so,” Sbragia said. “That is a first step, it’s not the last step.”