As tensions flare between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), news outlets and analysts have emphasized topics ranging from the volatility of the South China Sea to the prospects of military takeover of Taiwan. However, one significant sector is often downplayed or ignored altogether. Beijing’s growing dominance in the global commercial maritime arena should serve as a major source of concern for the country’s geopolitical adversaries- including the United States.
China’s foothold in the maritime space includes its control of foreign ports and large production and output of shipping containers and cranes. According to data collected by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2020, Beijing produces 96% of the globe’s shipping containers in addition to more than 80% of the globe’s ship-to-shore cranes. Additionally, the PRC controls more shipping ports than any other nation, including seven of the 10 busiest ports across the globe. Since the large majority of the world’s goods travel via the ocean to reach their destination, Beijing’s apparent dominance in the maritime shipping sphere raises alarm bells.
Earlier this year, U.S. Congressman Carlos A. Giménez (R-FL) introduced legislation to help combat the serious national security and economic threats Chinese cranes pose. The Port Crane Security and Inspection Act of 2022 “limits the operation at U.S. ports of foreign cranes. Foreign cranes are those (1) manufactured by companies that are subject to the control or influence of a country designated as a foreign adversary, and (2) using software or other technology that connects to ports’ cyber infrastructure.”
Ship-to-shore cranes play a crucial role in the daily operations of ports. Without them, it would be impossible to load and unload large shipping containers and post-Panamax-size ships. Today, the PRC’s Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company Limited (ZPMC) functions as the world’s largest manufacturer of cranes and large steel structures. The state-owned company is estimated to control a staggering 70% of the market. Not only does this figure represent a significant economic hinderance for America’s own maritime manufacturing sector, but Beijing’s monopoly of these cranes could pose serious cyber-security threats as well. In the event of a conflict, cranes made up with Chinese-designed software could be compromised. Considering the hostile trajectory Washington and Beijing are on, increasing maritime scrutiny seems like a no brainer.
Rep. Gimenez’s Port Crane Security and Inspection Act covers these apparent vulnerabilities and more. In addition to prohibiting the use of Chinese-made software in any crane connected to U.S. ports, the introduced bill directs the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to inspect foreign cranes prior to operation and assess all threats posed by security vulnerabilities on existing foreign cranes.
While China’s dominance over the commercial maritime space isn’t likely to falter anytime soon, steps like the Port Crane Security and Inspection Act would help to prevent Beijing from inflicting more damage to vital U.S. economic and security interests.