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China’s LOGINK: Securing Maritime Data in European Ports

Image Source: Anja Bauermann/unsplash

A Chinese logistics software has quietly extended into ports in Asia and Europe. Its expansion is now in the spotlight due to the EU’s new port strategy and US ban. 

The EU Parliament’s recent adoption of the Berendsen report, focusing on “building a comprehensive European Port Strategy,” marks an important step in dealing with the growing involvement of non-European actors in essential maritime infrastructure. This move comes at a time when there are increasing concerns about China’s role in global ports, including through the expansion of China’s National Transportation and Logistics Public Information Platform (LOGINK) in managing maritime data within Europe. 

With LOGINK now operating in seven major European ports, it not only showcases China’s advances in logistics technology but also leads to concerns around data ownership, economic security, and the strategic consequences of foreign technological influence within the EU’s maritime sphere.

The Rise of LOGINK: From Domestic to International Platform

LOGINK was initially developed as a provincial initiative in China in 2007 with the aim of streamlining logistics data management and shipment tracking. In 2010, LOGINK achieved a major advancement by integrating information from the Northeast Asia Logistics Information Service Network (NEAL-NET), which initially focused on container ship activities in the ports of Ningbo-Zhoushan, Tokyo-Yokohama, and Busan. This marked the start of a joint initiative that, six years later, led to the network’s growth to encompass 11 Chinese ports, 5 Japanese ports, and 3 ports in South Korea.

Today, LOGINK aggregates data from a wide network, including 5 million trucks, over 200 logistics warehouses worldwide, various ports in China and abroad, and over 450,000 users in China that can use it for B2B purposes like electronic booking or price inquires and also in B2G context, such as custom clearances or dangerous goods declarations.

To encourage widespread adoption, the Chinese government has actively promoted the use of LOGINK by providing it free of charge to ports, freight carriers, and other organizations. However, this push for early market dominance in the logistics management platform sector raises concerns about unfair business advantages and the potential manipulation of data in economic coercion and achieving Chinese security interests. 

The Concerns Surrounding LOGINK

One of the significant concerns related to LOGINK is the potential for Chinese companies to gain an unfair commercial edge through their access to comprehensive logistics data. By having real-time information on shipments, pricing and routes, Chinese firms can strategically undercut international rivals and potentially force them out of the market. This may lead to a heightened reliance on Chinese logistics services and a decrease in market share for non-Chinese corporations.

LOGINK’s extensive data-gathering abilities also raise apprehensions about the potential for manipulating data to achieve economic coercion objectives. By managing and altering logistics information, China could obstruct or impede trade routes to specific nations, applying economic pressure and obtaining influence in negotiations. This could have notable repercussions on international trade and the economies of countries that are highly dependent on sea transportation.

Moreover, there are also security links, especially in terms of military logistics. The system has the potential to hide the movements of the People’s Liberation Army and provide China with important details about US and other militaries’ logistics. This situation could jeopardize the security and operational efficiency of the military forces of China’s adversaries. Furthermore, the presence in European ports might aid intelligence collection and surveillance of military logistics activities.

LOGINK’s European Expansion

LOGINK, as an initiative overseen by China’s Ministry of Transport and housed within the China Transport Telecommunications and Information Center (CTTIC), has established agreements with at least 24 ports, freeports, and port operators outside of China, including seven ports in Europe (Antwerp, Bremen, Hamburg, Barcelona, Sines, Riga, and Rotterdam). These partnerships enable LOGINK to expand its global reach and influence in the logistics industry. 

Furthermore, LOGINK has formed strategic partnerships with various companies. Notable collaborations include PortBase, a Dutch company that signed a cooperation agreement with LOGINK in 2019; CargoSmart, a shipping management software company and a subsidiary of Orient Overseas, which was acquired by COSCO in 2018 and led the European Commission to launch a competition case; and CaiNiao, Alibaba’s logistics company with logistic centers in Europe, which has faced accusations of espionage by Belgium’s intelligence service. These collaborations grant LOGINK access to vast amounts of data on global container shipments and logistics operations.

Together with partnering with organizations like the International Port Community Systems Association (IPCSA), which facilitated LOGINK’s strategic partnerships with Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and Germany, these alliances position LOGINK as a major player in the global logistics sector, raising the potential of attaining a monopolistic position.

Although concerns about LOGINK’s impact on global trade and security are shared by the US and Europe, there is a notable disparity in their respective responses. The US has responded decisively by imposing a new ban on LOGINK, which prohibits the Pentagon from utilizing any seaport worldwide that uses LOGINK, but also requires the secretary of state to commence, within six months, discussions with allies and partners on eliminating the Chinese system from their ports. 

In contrast, Europe’s response has been relatively mild. Despite China having a significant presence in European ports – holding stakes in or operating 31 of them – Europe has not taken robust measures to address the potential risks associated with LOGINK so far. Ms. Vălean, a European Commissioner for Transport, recognized the development and international promotion of LOGINK but only emphasized the need for European ports to handle sensitive data securely and in compliance with EU regulations, leading to questions about whether this approach is sufficiently proactive in addressing the risks posed by LOGINK.

China’s Strategic Port Investments

China’s investments in global ports extend far beyond the operations of LOGINK. Over the past decade, China has secured significant stakes in a network of ports strategically vital for world trade and freedom of navigation. These investments, made by companies owned by the Chinese government, have given China control over ports in over 50 countries, spanning every ocean and continent.

The primary goal of these investments is purported to be commercial; nevertheless, concerns exist regarding potential military implications. Chinese-owned ports may offer China information on rival business activities and could surveil military maneuvers. This issue is especially important for ports such as Antwerp, Zeebrugge, Rotterdam, Valencia, Le Havre, Amsterdam, Gdynia and Stockholm. These ports either function as naval bases or have specific arrangements with the US Armed Forces for troop transportation.

Challenge for Europe’s Ports

The transportation sector, considered critical infrastructure in the EU, comprises various modes such as road transport, rail, air transport, inland waterways transport, and ocean and short-sea shipping. Ports are integral to this network by handling 74 percent of extra-EU goods transportation and facilitating about 37 percent of trade between EU member countries.

Recognizing the important role of ports in strategic planning, it is crucial for decision-makers to create specific measures aimed at reducing China’s increasing influence over internet-connected data systems. The growing use of LOGINK in European ports highlights the pressing need for policymakers to establish strong plans that can effectively counter China’s expanding dominance over critical global infrastructure and operational structures.

Written by

Tereza Corradi

Tereza is an intern in the team of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) and MapInfluenCE projects at the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, Czech Republic. She is also a security policy student at the CEVRO Institute.