China’s Port Strategy Positions It for Global Dominance

China has added a new dimension in its strategic drive to control the world’s waterways
November 5, 2021 Updated: November 10, 2021


Since the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy has been responsible for maintaining open and orderly overseas trade routes throughout the world. The United States has borne the costs of doing so, as those trade routes are a key part of the U.S.-led international order.

Of course, the results speak for themselves. Safe shipping routes have enabled global trade to rise to the highest levels in history. They’re what allow nations to trade in oil, automobiles, agricultural products, and many other goods with relative ease and safety.

In turn, nations in far-flung regions have had safe access to markets and goods that they never would have otherwise had. Many nations of the world are much better off with access to free and safe sea lanes.

Few, if any, national leaders publicly discuss the possibility or even the probability that this underlying stability could change at any time.

But it certainly can—and perhaps sooner than one would imagine.

A Smart Strategy to Challenge US Sea Power

In its long and deliberate march to replace the U.S.-led global order, China has pursued a different and quite clever tactic that comes with some serious strategic advantages.

The Chinese regime’s military planners rightly concluded that it would take them years, if not decades, to build and learn to use a blue-water navy that could stand up to the U.S. Navy. Even in 2021, although it has made great strides, the Chinese Navy still isn’t equal to U.S. naval might.

However, Chinese analysts have likely looked at a global map of all of the overseas trade routes. And in roughly the year 2013, they realized two simple facts.

The first fact was that they didn’t have to compete head-to-head with the U.S. Navy in order to gain an advantage over it. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Road (MSR), both launched in 2013, China started to buy existing ports throughout the world. It was a logical extension of its massive global export economy.

Control Harbors, Not Oceans

Doing so has also provided them with a significant presence in key trading nations and regions. Notably, however, via the MSR, China has maritime access to not just Southeast Asia, but to Africa and even to Europe as well. But it’s much more than just sea route access to those regions. China now owns all of the major ports along those routes.

China’s ownership of ports and waterways includes those with strategic significance. Once established there, China has been able to customize the ports to its own trading needs and perhaps even military or intelligence needs and advantages. But more than that, Beijing is exerting influence over the ports’ home countries, as well as nations that need to deliver their products through China-owned ports.

By maintaining control over the access to goods needed by nations throughout the world, China’s foreign influence has quietly, but significantly, expanded without the need for a single warship to be added to its fleet.

Gaining Control of the Sea Gates

The second fact learned by Chinese analysts in 2013 was that many ports in strategic locations through which much of the trade in the world passes are known as “sea gates.” Sea gates are strategic because they’re gateways—or more often, narrow chokepoints—to oceans or markets. To access routes, ships must pass through these sea gates.

China’s port at Djibouti is the narrow, maritime passage at the mouth of the Red Sea and the southern access route to the Suez Canal, which connects to the Mediterranean Sea. Its position is strategic because it serves as a sea gate for Indian, Indonesian, and many African nations’ shipping access to the European market.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese People’s Liberation Army personnel attend the opening ceremony of China’s new military base in Djibouti on Aug. 1, 2017. (STR/AFP via Getty Image)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Djibouti has also become China’s first overseas military base (if those in the South China Sea are excluded from that category), and for good reason. It’s not only a port, but a massive military presence in Africa, and it’s accompanied by a $3.4 billion railway system, which also allows for the transport and export of African natural resources back to China.

Thus, the port is a naval and military presence to protect vital resources for the Chinese economy. Key resource supply chains are well established in the North and Central African markets, as well as in the European and Middle Eastern markets. Djibouti enables Beijing to project power and influence at one of the most heavily trafficked crossroads in the world.

China’s power and influence gained from ownership of the Djibouti port also extends to the massive oil shipments that come out of the nearby Straits of Hormuz, upon which China is dependent. In fact, port ownership is a principal feature of the Chinese regime’s strategy for global domination and includes the U.S. ports of Houston and Miami, as well as the Panama Canal.

As is clearly evident, Beijing’s maritime port strategy is based on the simple fact that no matter where goods and ships may come from, they’ll eventually need to come to a port to transfer their goods to market. At the very least, gaining control over ports throughout the world gives China leverage and revenues in port fees, the power to determine which ships can dock there, and so forth.

After all, who needs a global navy to run blockades and control trade when you can do the same thing all over the world without deploying a single naval vessel or firing a shot?

The Chinese regime benefits from this very smart strategy in multiple ways, at the expense of the United States and other competitors. It remains to be seen when and how Beijing will decide to fully exploit its advantage and what the United States will do about it.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

James Gorrie
James R. Gorrie is the author of “The China Crisis” (Wiley, 2013) and writes on his blog, He is based in Southern California.