The report by the U.S.-based research group C4ADS questions China's portrayal of the trillion-dollar program, called the "Belt and Road Initiative," as strictly meant to promote economic development.
President Xi Jinping's signature foreign policy program, it is working to reinforce China's links to Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa through networks of roads, ports, railways, power plants and other infrastructure projects.
C4ADS, a nonprofit research institute that specializes in data analysis and security, examined official Chinese policy documents and unofficial reports by Chinese analysts to analyze the intentions of Beijing's ambitious economic development program, which seeks to connect 65 percent of the world's population in more than 60 countries.
Chinese officials say the initiative, also known as a modern "Silk Road" harkening back to maritime and land-based trade routes of centuries past, is driven by commercial considerations. They have rejected assertions that it is also meant to expand Beijing's global influence.
The report analyzed 15 Chinese-funded port projects in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Australia, Oman, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Djibouti and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region. It concluded that projects aren't driven by "win-win" economic development for the individual host countries, as Beijing claims.
"Rather, the investments appear to generate political influence, stealthily expand China's military presence and create an advantageous strategic environment in the region," it said.
China's Foreign Ministry rejected the findings, saying in a statement that Belt and Road is "essentially an economic cooperation initiative" promoting common development through infrastructure.
"China is not playing a geopolitical game," it said.
While there's no official policy document linking Belt and Road to China's national security interests, Chinese analysts have written that developing the program and pursuing Chinese security are "intimately linked," the report said. The analysts don't represent official thinking but the authors believe what they say could influence decision-makers promoting the Belt and Road Initiative.
"Many of these observers recognize that a network of maritime logistics hubs throughout the Indo-Pacific, including ports, has the potential to change the region's strategic landscape, and several explicitly describe the role of infrastructure investment in Chinese grand strategy," the report said.
The projects shared characteristics that, taken together, pointed to China's security intent, the report said. These include being in strategic locations such as entrances to the contested South China Sea, in an apparent effort by Beijing to ease its worries about energy imports and potential blockades.
The port projects involve dual civilian-military use, Communist Party influence through the involvement of Chinese state-owned companies and control through equity stakes or long-term leases and a lack of transparency and expected profitability, it said.
Peter Cai, a fellow at Australia's Lowy Institute think tank who has studied Belt and Road, said he was somewhat skeptical about claims China was using port projects to advance military goals, given the difficulty of coordinating so many different investments, some of which might involve "independent actors."
However, he said it's clear China's political influence would expand over countries it connects with.
The new links will increase economic activity, which means "you're going to have economic influence and we all know that economic influence easily translates into political leverage and power," Cai said.
One of the most controversial projects is in Sri Lanka, where the government signed a 99-year lease agreement for the unprofitable Hambantota Port, located along a busy Indian Ocean shipping lane, along with land to develop a free-trade zone, to a Chinese-controlled company, in a deal opposed by neighboring residents and monks.
"China appears to have established financial leverage over Sri Lanka through investment in alleged vanity projects" worth billions of dollars signed as Beijing courted the country's previous president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the report said. Debt levels for those projects prevented his successor from extricating the country from the deals and pivoting Sri Lanka away from China's influence, it said.
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