China's Military Is about to Go Global

The burgeoning need to protect commercial assets and Chinese nationals abroad will inevitably lead Beijing to develop new military capabilities and take on missions further afield. 

January-February 2015

In 2006, the risks to Chinese nationals abroad fueled the domestic demand for the Department of Consular Affairs to establish a division that could facilitate the protection of legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese nationals. Chinese leaders had started developing a system of “overseas Chinese protection” after the deaths of fourteen Chinese nationals in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2004. But there are currently 190,000 Chinese citizens overseas for every Chinese consular protection officer, a ratio that is thirteen times higher than Russia’s and fifteen times that of Japan. Moreover, to date, efforts have mainly been confined to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and some in China have begun to complain that the government relies too heavily on enhancing citizen awareness of dangers and diplomatic mechanisms for citizen protection, rather than using military force. Chinese nationals express both a new expectation of government protection while overseas, as well as a lack of confidence in their government’s mechanism for protecting its citizens, despite the massive and successful evacuation from Libya in 2011. A prominent Chinese public intellectual noted in the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 tragedy that “China’s capacity to engage in security operations outside of its national boundary still lags far behind” that of developed countries, and argued that “China has all the reason and right to turn the crisis and challenge into an opportunity to build up its security forces’ capacity to protect overseas interests.”

There is also broader support for this shift in policy within the government bureaucracy. A senior CCP official argued that China should allow private companies to develop operational ties with local police forces and provide security services in high-risk areas the way Blackwater (now Academi) does for the United States. While U.S. operations abroad are usually criticized in Chinese media, both the 2012 Navy SEAL operation that rescued two hostages in Somalia and President Barack Obama’s assertion that the kidnapping of U.S. citizens would not be tolerated received tacit approval through positive Chinese media coverage.

The PLA has also been pushing for a greater role in protection of citizens overseas; for the first time, China’s 2013 Defense White Paper emphasized the need to “protect Chinese people overseas,” stating specifically that “when there is a war, riot or political disturbance, the army should be able to evacuate Chinese people swiftly.” An editorial in the China Daily by a former PLA colonel captures this sentiment:

The PLA is also responsible for rescuing Chinese hostages in the event of such crises, and this is especially pertinent at a time when pirates, terrorists and armed kidnappers are operating on a greater scale in many parts of the world. The army should also act as a deterrent against those who attempt to harm Chinese people. We will not allow any repeat of such tragedies as the May 1998 riots in Indonesia, in which some 1,200 ethnic Chinese were killed.

As more and more Chinese nationals have been exposed to risks abroad, China has begun to respond militarily, trumpeting such expeditions as evidence of its growing capabilities. But as public expectations grow even faster, the CCP’s credibility will be increasingly tied to its ability to swiftly and effectively protect Chinese interests in the farthest corners of the globe. The CCP has recognized this, with Premier Li Keqiang stating in May 2014 during a visit to Angola:

As China is becoming more open, the number of Chinese companies and citizens overseas is increasing. Their legitimate rights and interests as well as personal security have become . . . increasingly prominent issues. Safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies and citizens is not only the inherent requirement of expanding the “opening up,” but also due responsibilities of the party and the government.


THIRD, IN addition to commercial demand and domestic pressure, the Chinese leadership’s desire to create a positive international image could provide additional incentives to develop global expeditionary capabilities. International pressure for China to take on more global responsibilities creates international support for PLA expeditionary operations. A Chinese military with the ability to project power globally, even if only for a short period of time in relatively permissive environments, could contribute more to peacekeeping missions and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. China has sent over twenty-two thousand peacekeepers to participate in twenty-three different UN peacekeeping missions, and provides the largest number of troops for engineering, transportation and medical support among the 115 contributing countries. However, the international community has consistently demanded more from Beijing. In response, China agreed to increase its UN peacekeeping budget from just over 3 percent of the total budget in 2013 to more than 6 percent by 2015. In June 2013, China also agreed to deploy “comprehensive security forces” to Mali, sending combat forces to a UN operation for the first time. A proclaimed desire to contribute more to the global good could provide a legitimate and nonthreatening rationale for the development of power-projection capabilities.