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Chinese Commercial Shippers Pressed into Spy Missions

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The vast expanse of the sea carries ninety percent of the world’s traded goods, connecting markets and facilitating global commerce. Yet this vast network is susceptible to disruptions—whether from port congestion, pandemic-induced bottlenecks, or massive vessels getting trapped in narrow canals. But what if the gravest threat isn’t as visible as a giant ship in a canal? Enter China’s stealthy strategy of controlling and weaponizing maritime information.

Over the past thirty years, China has been strategically embedding itself into the arteries of global trade. They now own or operate around 96 foreign ports, expanding even into places like Hamburg, Germany, and the Solomon Islands. While the control of foreign ports isn’t a new phenomenon—companies from Singapore to the UAE have stakes in global ports—China’s ambitions are different. Their massive and somewhat secretive information infrastructure and their legal obligation for all Chinese companies to report foreign intelligence are alarming.

China’s motives aren’t merely economic; they’re strategic. They have developed a commanding presence on major global trade routes, with their assets strategically placed near the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean Sea. Their influence extends from smaller facilities to larger ones, giving them an advantage in gathering intelligence and conducting strategic activities. It’s not just about controlling the routes; it’s about controlling the information on those routes. For instance, many international ports use China’s LOGINK software, which tracks vast amounts of trade and maritime data. From vessel status to payment details, China has a bird’s-eye view of global trade activities.

Moreover, their commercial ports often host military vessels, providing the Chinese navy, the world’s largest, a strategic advantage and making the line between commercial and military endeavors blurrier. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies have made it clear that commerce should serve the interests of the state. That means they not only control trade data but can also block it from other nations.

The U.S. on the other hand may ask a shipper for assistance in an intelligence mission, and many times this will be accommodated. But it is strictly volunteer. No one can be forced into taking risks for the government in America.

Such dominance brings immense peacetime advantages, but in wartime, it could be devastating. With the power to control most of the world’s seaborne goods, China could, hypothetically, decide the fate of essential supplies without ever needing a naval blockade.

The magnitude of this challenge necessitates immediate action from global leaders, particularly the U.S. A comprehensive risk assessment is needed, focusing on critical supply chains that pass through Chinese-controlled ports. The goal? To protect commercial and military interests and ensure China isn’t manipulating or weaponizing trade data.

The international tide is turning, with nations reevaluating their association with China’s Belt and Road infrastructure projects. As Italy considers pulling out of the program, it’s a pivotal moment for a U.S.-led initiative to safeguard maritime infrastructure globally.

It’s crucial to recognize and counteract the myriad of risks inherent in China’s global ambitions. China knows that information is power and spying is a force multiplier, and they have no problem stepping on their own citizens to further the state’s interests.

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