Continuity and change in China’s strategy to protect overseas interests

Andrea Ghiselli

This summer has not been an easy one for the officials working at China’s Centre for Consular Assistance and Protection of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In May, a Chinese national was killed in South Sudan, along a major road linking the capital Juba to the town of Rumbek. In July, nine more Chinese citizens died and one was wounded in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Gunmen abd-ucted three Chinese wo-rkers and two Maurita-nians from a construction site in northern Mali less than a week later.

While the Chinese embassy in Bamako issued a warning to Chinese companies and nationals in Mali to pay extra attention to their safety, the Global Times, defined by China scholar and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Shirk as “a tabloid, but an authoritative one,” published an unusually thunderous editorial in response. It warned that, though China will provide assistance to Pakistan, if that country’s “strength is insufficient, China’s missiles and special forces could also directly participate in operations to eliminate threats against Chinese in Pakistan with the consent of Pakistan. We will set an example as a deterrent.”

How China approaches the protection of its interests overseas is no trivial thing. Its decision to deploy its military (including the People’s Armed Police) overseas to protect Chinese nationals or companies might easily be perceived by the United States and others as the first step in establishing a Chinese sphere of influence outside Asia. This is already happening. For example, in an interview with the Associated Press, the commander of the US Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, conflated Ch-ina’s real attempts to protect its interests in Africa with speculations about a broader strategy that incl-udes the establishment of a stable military presence in West Africa to threaten America’s eastern coast.

As I show in my recently published book on this topic, however, the situation is much more complex and, more importantly, less threatening. Although there is a consensus in Beijing that the military should play a role in the protection of Chinese companies — and especially nationals — in case of danger abroad, that consensus was the result of responding to a series of crises, rather than grand strategizing. Moreover, the existence of that consensus does not necessarily mean that the Chinese military is, or will become, the main actor in dealing with this thorny problem.

Who’s Responsible for Protecting Chinese Overseas Interests?

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government has long looked at the foreign ministry as the main agency charged to manage what scholar William Norris defined as the “security externalities” of China’s economic activities in unstable regions. Since the early 2000s, the foreign ministry has been working with other ministries and agencies of the State Council, especially the Ministry of Commerce, to codify into regulations the principle that “[whoever] sends personnel abroad is responsible for them”. Essentially, the goal is to make Chinese companies responsible not only for the economic success of their activities, but also for the safety of their employees. As is made explicit in the many warnings the foreign ministry and Chinese embassies and consulates abroad issue, Chinese nationals who travel to, or who remain in, highly dangerous places against the opinion of the foreign ministry have to pay all the costs associated with their protection and rescue.

The encouragement to spend more money on security training, insurance, and consulting services has also created opportunities for the private security sector in China. However, Chinese policymakers have refused to eliminate the current legal gray zone that impedes Chinese security contractors from playing a significant role overseas. According to some Chinese scholars, allowing private security companies to become more similar to their international counterparts, especially in terms of using force abroad, risks creating significant diplomatic risks that would outweigh the possible security gains. The real problem is that many Chinese contractors and investors simply spend too little on risk prevention and risk management in the first place, and do not keep in touch with Chinese embassies and consulates overseas. For example, China was forced to evacuate roughly 36,000 Chinese nationals from Libya amidst a raging conflict and NATO bombing campaign.

China’s leadership started thinking about the possible role of the military to protect overseas assets and resources necessary for their country’s economic development many years ago. In 2004, terms like “development interests” and “new historic missions” began appearing in official statements by leading officials and in the defense white paper released that year. However, my analysis of important developments, such as the joining of international antipiracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden in 2008 and the deployment of peacekeepers to Darfur in 2007, show that diplomatic considerations, such as projecting the image of a “responsible great power”, were still the main, albeit not the only, driver of the expansion of China’s military footprint outside Asia.

A real change in Chinese thinking took place in the aftermath of the 2011 evacuation from Libya. As shown in my book, the discussion among Chinese military experts and officers started to focus on what’s necessary for the military to operate overseas, from the legal framework to new training requirements and so on. At the same time, a number of crucial steps were made at home and abroad to make it possible for the People’s Liberation Army to play a larger role beyond Asia. At home, the government issued new laws and regulations like the Provisions for the Participation of the People’s Liberation Army in U.N. Peacekeeping Missions, the National Security Law, the Antiterrorism Law, and the National Defense Transportation Law in order to clarify key aspects related to Chinese military operations overseas. Since the publication of the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy, the military has also revised its doctrine, especially in regards with “military operations other than war” overseas. These changes took place in parallel with the Chinese navy’s acquisition of new platforms, such as the Type 071 landing platform dock and the Type 075 landing helicopter dock, and the reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps.

Two other key developments took place abroad that demonstrated China’s interest in exploring how the military could contribute to the protection of its interests overseas. As detailed by scholar David Styan, the first was the signing of a security cooperation agreement with Djibouti, and the sending of the first Chinese military attaché to the country in the aftermath of the 2012 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Djibouti was surely on the top of the list of the places that could possibly host a Chinese military base because of the familiarity of the Chinese navy with the country. Moreover, the presence of other foreign militaries made opening a base there less eye-catching, and these moves should be seen as the first steps toward the opening of the base there on Aug. 1, 2017, the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.

The second important development was the decision to deploy combat troops as part of the U.N. peacekeeping missions in Mali and South Sudan in 2013 and 2015, respectively. These ongoing deployments serve two purposes. Firstly, like previous small detachments of “guard units” in Darfur and South Sudan, they allow the Chinese military to familiarize itself with foreign environments and gain operational experience. Courtney J. Fung, an expert on China and the United Nations at Hong Kong University, has analyzed this process in detail. Secondly, though Chinese peacekeepers play an extremely limited role in directly protecting Chinese assets and workers, they allow Beijing to gain important diplomatic capital that can be invested in shaping the mandate of peacekeeping missions wherein they are deployed. The most prominent example of this was the inclusion in mid-2014 of oil installations in South Sudan among the facilities that (non-Chinese) peacekeepers protected.

Yet, despite these important changes, the actual, direct role the People’s Liberation Army plays in China’s strategy to protect its interests overseas has not changed much. China still has no network of bases overseas. As far as it is publicly known, investment in foreign port facilities has not come with additional agreements that grant special rights to the Chinese military. On the contrary, in recent years, China has significantly strengthened what Zhong Feiteng, a researcher at National Institute of International Strategy of the State Council-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, defines as “policy communication” with other countries. This is evident if one looks at the numerous trips Zhao Kezhi, the state councilor and minister of public security, made during which the protection of Chinese projects was explicitly mentioned as part of law enforcement cooperation.

The goal is to work with, and support, local security forces so that they can ensure the safety of Chinese interests. Besides the famous case of Pakistan creating new units specifically with that purpose, a recent example of this trend is the inking of an accord between Demelash Gebremichael, the commissioner-general of the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission, and Zhao Zhiyuan, China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, aimed at improving the protection of projects taking place in the East African country within the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Ethiopian forces escorted hundreds of Chinese natio-nals out of the Tigray reg-ion just a few months earlier.

China’s approach to the protection of its interests overseas, one that is centered on diplomatic cooperation while also including a limited military option, is a sensible strategy. This is especially true for a country that has an enormous economic and human footprint in many unstable regions of the world. Although many think about the deployment of troops overseas almost solely in terms of soldiers sent to kill someone, it is important to remember that the military also possesses unique auxiliary capabilities that allow it to react more quickly and more effectively than civilian agencies in case of non-traditional security crises. This was evident to some extent during the 2011 evacuation from Libya, and even more so when Chinese nationals were evacuated from Yemen in 2015. Chin-ese soldiers did not shoot a single bullet, but naval warships and long-range transport aircraft proved instrumental in bringing Chinese nationals to safety.

At the same time, China has accumulated political capital, especially in the developing world, by avoiding the militarization of its foreign policy beyond what concerns its “core interests”, especially territorial integrity in the case of the South and East China Seas, territorial disputes with India, and reunification with Taiwan. This is even more important today than 10 years ago because diplomatic support from the non-Western world is crucial for China in the context of increasingly competitive relations with the United States. Indeed, my research shows that Chinese military officers are aware of the fact that the use of force overseas, even in the context of peacekeeping missions, is not a simple tactical event but, instead, has critical diplomatic implications. Both the 2015 and 2020 editions of The Science of Military Strategy emphasize that a “diplomatic constraint” strongly shapes the use of the military overseas. Moreover, a number of scholars, such as Noel Maurer, Eugene Gholz, and Daryl G. Press, have shown that the military is not the most effective tool to protect a country’s interests overseas. Chinese policymakers and/or their advisers are likely aware of this dynamic. Indeed, Niu Xinchun, the director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at the influential China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, has recently made this same point very clear in an article published by the Global Times.

Of course, this might change. Pippa Morgan and I found that Chinese companies in the Middle East and North Africa usually evacuate their workers only in the aftermath of large-scale events, rather than when the Chinese foreign ministry tells them to do so. Worryingly, this dangerous behavior has not changed after the Libyan crisis. As shown by data collected by the researchers of the ChinaMed Project, those regions are increasingly important markets for Chinese exporters and engineering contractors. The number of Chinese workers in the regions remains high — around 70,000 as of December 2019 — despite the downward trend since the post-2011 peak of about 115,000 workers in 2015. Therefore, the risk of major crises, and, especially, small incidents like those in South Sudan and Mali, remains constant. At the same time, it would be naïve to think that Chinese policymakers look at the military only to carry out evacuations, and they surely want Chinese soldiers to be able to perform higher-intensity missions if necessary. After all, safeguarding China’s interests overseas has officially become one of the strategic tasks of the Chinese armed forces (including the People’s Armed Police) since 2015.

The Chinese government appears to have a strong preference for finding ways to prevent crises from happening through the employment of regulatory tools to push Chinese companies to invest more in risk prevention and risk management, and through relying on cooperation with other countries. As of today, the efforts made in the aftermath of the Libyan crisis to include a military option in the policy menu have not changed this approach in a significant way. There are good diplomatic, and to a minor extent, economic reasons for that. In fact, tensions with the United States actually provide a strong incentive against the expansion of China’s military presence abroad because the presence of soldiers in a foreign country could quickly erode the precious diplomatic capital that, as mentioned above, China has accumulated over the years by keeping its military presence at minimum and within a multilateral framework.

Looking Ahead

Chinese foreign policy remains vulnerable to shocks caused by sudden threats to the country’s interests overseas. Although important changes took place after 2011 in order to ensure that the People’s Liberation Army can play a more active role in protecting Chinese nationals and assets in unstable regions, policymakers in Beijing have maintained a pragmatic and cautious approach. After all, the best way to deal with difficult choices is avoiding situations in which one is forced to make them. There is no doubt that the evil attacks against Chinese citizens in Mali, Pakistan, and South Sudan will not be the last to happen. However, apart from Libya-like incidents involving large a large number of Chinese nationals (not simply material assets), we should not expect People’s Liberation Army operations overseas outside the U.N. framework to become the new normal.

This assessment has important implications for Western officials. While China will likely continue pushing to expand its influence, and socialize local elites and security forces overseas through training and exchange programs to ensure that its interests are protected, that is vastly different from the far more malign and threatening scenarios that some imagine. My research shows that Chinese decision-makers have been pragmatic and cautious, well aware of the risks and costs that a more active use of the military to protect their country’s interests overseas would entail. Against this background, it is very difficult, for instance, to believe that there is a master plan to threaten America’s East Coast from Africa.

Of course, things could change, especially in the event of another sudden large-scale crisis. As shown in Libya, Western military intervention can antagonize China in the U.N. Security Council and destabilize key regions, thereby threatening Chinese companies and nationals. As China’s human and economic footprint overseas expands, it will naturally become more vulnerable to this type of instability. Therefore, if Western officials are concerned about a shift in China’s strategy, it is crucial that they appreciate that whether that will happen depends in part on them.

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