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China’s silent play for Europe’s seas

The Athenian politician and general Themistocles once stated, rather convincingly, that “he who commands the sea has command of everything.” This fact is not lost on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a tyrannical regime with aspirations of controlling two of the world’s three largest oceans: the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Not only do our oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, they carry 80 percent of global trade volume. Oceans are significant economic tools — arguably, the most important. In addition to seizing control of large expanses of sea networks, the CCP is also seizing control of an increasing number of shipping ports. More specifically, shipping ports all across Europe.

Over the past decade, the CCP has invested in a large number of EU ports. Why? It’s quite simple, really. Ports are a key component of global supply chains. In many ways, those who control ports, control the supply chain narrative. And if you control the supply chain narrative, you essentially control the world.

In Malta, a Southern European archipelago synonymous with sunshine and sandy beaches, the shadow of China looms large. Situated in the central Mediterranean, what Malta lacks in size ( 316 km²/population of 500,000), the island country more than makes up for in terms of strategic significance.

Five years ago, Malta became a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure development program of questionable merit. In short, once a country signs up to the BRI, it enters into a Faustian bargain of sorts, by allowing Chinese banks, tech giants, and construction companies to construct and even control its roads and railways, as well as its airports and power plants. BRI membership is intimately associated with national security breaches and dangerous levels of debt. I have previously referred to the initiative as ‘colonisation with Chinese characteristics.’ Rather shockingly, 151 countries have now signed up to the BRI. Which brings us back to Malta.

Chinese companies own major stakes in Malta’s biggest electrical companies, giving CCP-approved investors access to the nation’s power grid. The University of Malta, a well-respected institution of higher learning, is home to one of China’s many Confucius Institutes, which are little more than Trojan horses for Beijing to spread its nefarious propaganda.

Moreover, China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) and China Merchants Port Holdings, two of the world’s largest shipping companies, have stakes in the Maltese port of Marsaxlokk. On closer inspection, the two companies, closely aligned with the CCP,  have stakes in a number of Mediterranean ports: France, Spain, Turkey, and Italy, to name just four. The Sicilian seaport of Palermo, quite possibly the most important port in the Mediterranean, is of particular interest to the CCP (Italy, like Malta, is also a member of the controversial BRI).

In Spain, COSCO enjoys a 51% ownership stake in Noatum Ports, one of Europe’s leading maritime and logistics operations companies. Meanwhile, in Greece, COSCO owns a 66 percent majority stake in the port of Piraeus. The significance of this port, located at the intersection of three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa), cannot be emphasied enough. It is inarguably one of the world’s most important shipping centers. Five-hundred miles away, in Croatia, Chinese investors hold a 76 percent stake in Zadar port, located in central Dalmatia.

Obviously concerned by China’s interest in Europe’s ports, the EU recently sounded the alarm on Beijing’s influence. Although the EU is right to raise the alarm, the international organisation’s warnings come about 10 years too late. The damage is done. If in doubt, look at the amount of European countries signed up to the BRI.

Of course, China’s influence in Europe must be viewed through a much broader lens. According to research carried out by academics at the United States Naval War College and Indiana University, Chinese-backed companies own or operate more than 90 ports in 53 countries. From southern Africa to South America, the CCP is gaining control of more and more ports. As is clear to see, Beijing’s vise-like grip over the world’s preeminent mode of trade is far-reaching and deeply troubling. By seizing control of so many ports, the CCP will continue to shape the global trade narrative.

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