People working on a ship at a new dry dock at the shipyards at the port of Piraeus, which is majority-owned by China’s Cosco Shipping Ports. Photo: AFP

Concerns are being raised over the security threat posed at Chinese-operated ports throughout Europe that also service US and NATO warships.

While maritime and port security experts are divided on whether this poses a spying risk on  US and NATO naval forces, the concerned governments and port authorities appear uncomfortable with the issue – and are reluctant to deal with it.

In recent months, US President Donald Trump has threatened North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies in Europe with punitive measures if they buy 5G wireless technology from Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

US officials say Chinese businesses are legally compelled to cooperate with their country’s intelligence services and could spy on allied assets. According to this reasoning, Chinese port companies could potentially monitor US warships docking at European facilities.

While Washington has so far refrained from openly rebuking European allies, it has raised the issue of Chinese activities in the Israeli port of Haifa. Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) will be managing this facility for 25 years starting from 2021. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in March that his country could reduce intelligence sharing with the historical ally in the Middle East if it does not re-examine infrastructure cooperation with China.

Eyal Pinko, a maritime cybersecurity and intelligence expert at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, believes China’s activities in Djibouti, Greece, Italy and other allied or friendly nations could pose a security risk to the US Navy.

Pinko told Asia Times that Chinese port operators could closely monitor the movement of US and Nato warships, gather information about their maintenance operations and have access to sensitive systems and equipment through interception of electromagnetic signals, intelligence-gathering by use of electronic sensors, visual and human intelligence.

US overplays threat

At the moment, US vessels continue to stop at ports of allied countries in which the Chinese have a presence.

In mid-April, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher docked at the Greek port of Piraeus, which is majority-owned by China’s Cosco Shipping Ports. The Piraeus Port Authority, which is being managed by the Chinese, said that apart from the Mitscher, two more navy ships from European NATO countries made a call at its terminal in April.

As well, the aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis recently conducted a port visit to Marseille. China Merchants Port Holdings Company (CMPort) holds a 25% stake in the French port’s EuroFos Terminal.

A retired French vice-admiral, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that EuroFos was miles away from the part of Marseille port where the military usually stations. He insisted that CMPort “did not have any say on or any contribution to the port’s management, control and security.”

Some in Israel say the US government would be overplaying such a threat, as the Chinese actually do not need to buy or invest in Israeli ports to spy on US naval vessels.

The retired French vice-admiral is of the same opinion. “I would be very surprised if China needed the presence of its companies somewhere to get some kind of information on a [US] military ship as soon as it makes a port visit to a place like Marseille,” he said.

Not ready to deal with the problem

The Rotterdam Port Authority declined to comment on whether it shared the US government’s concerns about China’s activities in port facilities of allied countries and their potential impact on the security of US and NATO warships.

Cosco has a 35% stake in the Dutch port’s Euromax Terminal. The Netherlands Ministry of Defense said it was unable to specifically talk about Rotterdam port, but pointed out that “Chinese intelligence services actively try to gather military information in the country.”

For its part, the Italian Infrastructure and Transport Ministry said that commercial ports in Italy did not have particular security protocols to deal with possible Chinese intelligence operations.

Cosco and Qingdao Port International Development have together a 49.9% participation in the Vado Ligure Terminal, which is part of Genoa port and will start operations this December.

Speaking to Asia Times, the Port Authority of Genoa said that Chinese spying was not an issue because US and NATO warships do not use Italian commercial ports.

But the Allied Maritime Command in Northwood, Britain, said otherwise. “Of NATO’s port visits to Italy last year, about one-fourth were to civilian ports,” a NATO official noted. “The alliance does sometimes use civilian ports, even though most rely on military facilities.”

European port and government authorities could object that Chinese companies are also active in US ports. For instance, SIPG cooperates with the Georgia Ports Authority, Seattle port and the port of Miami.

The Europeans have shown no intentions of giving in to US pressure to cancel infrastructure agreements with the Chinese under the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s mega-project to improve connectivity across Eurasia and beyond, as it is unlikely that the Israelis will scrap the Haifa Port contract with SIPG.

Quite the contrary, European port operators are ready to expand their cooperation with Chinese counterparts, as proved by the recent Sino-Dutch deal to develop a multimodal transportation route linking southwestern China’s Sichuan province and the US East Coast via Rotterdam port.

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