Our Ship of State, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come safely to harbor at last.
CREON, IN SOPHOCLES'S ANTIGONE
Backed by substantial financing and political support, China COSCO Shipping Corporation Limited (COSCO) emerged from the container shipping industry's recent turmoil with one of the largest fleets of commercial vessels in the world and control of a rapidly expanding network of ports and terminals. This article argues that this expansion is a new and distinctly Chinese approach to maritime development and asks whether the state-owned shipping company has become the flagship of Chinas ambition to become a global maritime power.
Chinese maritime and logistics firms, supported by state-subsidized capital deployed overseas, quickly are becoming a leading edge of China's global influence. In recent years, Chinese state-owned companies have built a global network of shipping and port assets that suggests the country is using maritime commercial investments to advance its geostrategic priorities by establishing economic influence over countries in which Chinese-controlled port facilities are located.
These Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are creating one of the most extensive maritime networks in the world by acquiring strategically located port assets in the European Union (EU), Latin America, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean. They provide the capital to build or upgrade commercial terminals; then they direct container traffic to those ports through shipping lines that are controlled directly by the port's parent company or indirectly through companies associated with China's strategic port owners through formal shipping alliances.
This commercial drive complements a well-documented naval expansion by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) since at least the 1980s. (1) The framework for Chinese naval policy in what China calls the "far seas"--the waters beyond the "first island chain"--has been examined comprehensively. (2) Models of China's potential basing requirements to support overseas naval operations also have been assessed, as have the use and organization of Chinese maritime law-enforcement resources. (3)
This article argues that the port and shipping transactions of the People's Republic of China are a major vector of a government policy to achieve global maritime power and commensurate political influence without resorting to, or at least while mitigating the risk of, a direct confrontation with the United States or other nations with global maritime interests. The commercial-strategic linkages and state support for Chinese port and shipping ventures resemble a twenty-first-century version of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) (Dutch East India Company). Chinese SOEs are today, as the VOC was in its time, notionally commercial enterprises that operate globally with the full financial and military backing of their home state. In this view, the vessels that connect these ports into an integrated network of commercial power are "ships of state," functioning as instruments of Chinese national strategy while they sail as commercial carriers of manufactured goods and commodities.
China's unique and assertive approach to maritime development has been described as the construction of military-relevant facilities rather than overtly military bases. As implemented in the "near seas," the rapid construction of airfields...