How far can the BRI take China? AidData authors examine one possible geopolitical gain: naval ports

AidData researchers use massive cache of data to shed light on potential for the country to establish multiple permanent overseas military bases for its maritime forces.

August 16, 2023
Nathan Warters (W&M News)
AidData's recently-published report “Harboring Global Ambitions,” focuses on ports and infrastructure construction financed by Chinese state-owned entities in low- and middle-income countries between 2000 and 2021. (Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock)

AidData's recently-published report “Harboring Global Ambitions,” focuses on ports and infrastructure construction financed by Chinese state-owned entities in low- and middle-income countries between 2000 and 2021. (Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock).

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by William & Mary News at the following link:

AidData, the international development research lab based at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute, recently published a report focusing on ports and infrastructure construction financed by Chinese state-owned entities in low- and middle-income countries between 2000 and 2021.

AidData Director of Partnerships and Communications Alex Wooley, Research Analyst Sheng Zhang, Communications Manager Sarina Patterson, and Junior Program Manager Rory Fedorochko ’22 co-authored the report, drawing on information from a larger dataset to be released later this year, earlier iterations of which provided the foundation for several influential reports in recent years on Chinese lending.

The research lab continues to add to that broad dataset with the assistance of undergraduate students in its Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) team. Data is one of the key initiatives of William & Mary’s Vision 2026 strategic plan.

Like AidData’s previous findings regarding Chinese lending, this most recent report received significant attention from international media outlets. The authors wrote a story for Foreign Policy magazine that was the most read article on its website for multiple days, and there was also coverage by The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, The Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada and a Bloomberg article that was picked up by several other outlets.

William & Mary News spoke to the authors about their work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: This study is a product of AidData’s broader China development finance project that has produced several influential reports over the years. What were the findings detailed in this report?

Patterson: Our report, which is called “Harboring Global Ambitions,” explores the potential for China to establish permanent overseas military bases for its maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). We analyzed data from a forthcoming version of AidData’s Global Chinese Development Finance Dataset, and we supplemented it with additional qualitative research to arrive at a short list of what we think are the eight top potential locations for future Chinese overseas naval bases. One of the findings that jumped out initially as well is that we see a big concentration of port investments on the coasts of central and western Africa, and quite a few of those ports end up in our top eight.

Q: What are the potential impacts of these findings internationally and in the United States?

Patterson: I think China’s future plans for establishing these bases have implications for itself, for the U.S. and Western allies, as well as any potential host countries of these bases. We think for a few years now, the West has been playing catch up on aid, trade and diplomacy, and it’s been spurred by China’s impressive gains in all those areas. The U.S. and its allies should be vigilant, allocate resources carefully, and try to foster alliances and partnerships with countries that are potentially considering moving toward China. We also think that developing countries shouldn’t be handed just a binary choice. We’re in an era of increased great power competition. The headlines are dominated by stories of potential competition, tension, even conflict between the U.S. and China, so policymakers in these potential host countries probably don’t want to publicly throw in their lot with one foreign superpower over another or take sides, and thereby restrict their freedom of choice and latitude and opportunities in terms of aid, trade and diplomacy.

Wooley: We look at the vast Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which are agreements between China and more than 150 countries to develop infrastructure in those countries, and we see the seaports and the naval base question as potentially a test of how far the Belt and Road can take China. There’s all sorts of commercial and economic benefits that China gets, but then what if China then wants to leverage those huge commercial investments it has in countries into some geopolitical gains as well? Is it able to do it? Is it able to push those limits beyond the commercial and the economic?

Q: How were undergraduate students involved?

Patterson: In our report acknowledgements, there’s a very long list of student research assistants who contributed to the larger global Chinese development finance dataset that we drew our data from, and I think that is 128 student research assistants who’ve worked for the Tracking Underreported Financial Flows team here at AidData since fall of 2021.

Q: Rory, you began working as a student research assistant at AidData as a sophomore. Describe your journey to program manager.

Fedorochko: I started in June 2020, and I worked on a variety of work streams in the TUFF team. The work spanned from basic-level data collection to in-depth analysis. When we launched our report in September 2021, I was one of the student research assistants who was doing checks at the very end to confirm the validity of the whole dataset. It is a very helpful environment for learning, and I got very good at the methodology, open-source research and synthesizing the information into digestible and practical descriptions.

I was hired in a full-time role after I graduated in May 2022. It’s helpful in some respects to go from student to supervisor of students. You know the way semesters go. You know the things students are dealing with. Most junior staff are TUFF and W&M alumni, so we have a lot of camaraderie with students; we try to accommodate their interests and ensure they know how meaningful their work is. We always smile when we hear from research assistants about how something they learned during TUFF popped up during a class or work after graduation.

Q: What is the next step for the broader China spending project?

Wooley: The next version of the global dataset will be coming out in the fall of 2023. This is basically the expanded version of the two previous launches we’ve had of the global dataset, one in 2017 and one in 2021. This dataset will add several years and also expand the number of projects covered. Our last dataset release in September 2021 covered all Chinese finance projects to developing countries in the commitment years from 2000 to 2017. This new dataset will cover from 2000 through 2021 but will significantly expand the total number of projects. Accompanying the dataset will be, as we did last time, a major policy report. We’ll be doing deep dive chapters, research-heavy chapters, drawing on the data to look at some specific topics of interest. There’s a lot of anticipation from different audiences for this, including policymakers and the global media. We’re hopeful our data, analysis and research will continue to catalyze dialogue and debate, not just in Western capitals, but also in the developing countries where much of AidData’s work is focused.

Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist

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