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Chinese Port-building Along the BRI: “There’s a Lot More Than Meets the Eye”

Daniel R. Russel and Blake Berger, two scholars at the New York-based Asia Society Policy Institute, have published a new report that looks at the broad security implications of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

Although Chinese officials have long maintained that the Belt and Road has an economically-driven agenda and strenuously denied any geostrategic or military motives, Russel and Berger say there are legitimate reasons to doubt those reassurances.

The main focus of their report centers on Chinese port-building and how both the location of Chinese investment/loans and their construction parameters indicate that they could be used for both civilian and military purposes. In particular, the authors claim that all Chinese ports built along the BRI are required to conform “to PLA standards to accommodate Chinese navy ships.” Therefore, they believe, while these ports, especially those in strategic countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan, are currently used for purely commercial purposes, they can be engaged by the PLAN in the event of a conflict.

Key Highlights From the Russel & Berger Report on the Weaponization of the BRI

  • FROM SEA TO SPACE: “Given that Xi Jinping has championed the “unified military-civil system of strategic capability,” it should come as little surprise that major components of BRI infrastructure, including the port-park-city model, the Digital Silk Road, and the BRI Space Information Corridor, are designed with dual-use features that bolster a range of potential military and intelligence capabilities.” (PAGE 42)
  • RAISE THE COST FOR THE U.S.: “There is little evidence so far of Beijing constructing full blown overseas military bases on the U.S. model, but there is abundant evidence it is developing a network of strategic strongpoints that can significantly raise the costs of any U.S. military intervention and lower the willingness of BRI host governments to offer access or assistance to the United States.” (PAGE 42)
  • NO GUARANTEE OF SUCCESS:  “It is by no means a forgone conclusion that this nascent ecosystem underpinned by the BRI will ultimately be realized. It is true that U.S. policies and diminished diplomatic engagement in the region over the past several years have not aided America’s cause. Yet Beijing confronts a range of countervailing forces that could derail its plans. The CCP is not offering a global vision that other countries seem eager to embrace.” (PAGE 43)

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