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

The Chinese leadership has taken a broader view of its security interests, and many Chinese strategists recognize that the ability to deploy globally to aid other countries has a positive impact on Beijing’s international image. This second-order effect will create support among party officials who believe that a positive international image is necessary for China’s peaceful and successful rise. To facilitate China’s involvement in global HADR missions and ensure that operations are conducted effectively, the Chinese government has already set up a working mechanism to coordinate responses among the relevant actors and agencies. Arguably, nonthreatening missions like HADR operations, NEOs and peacekeeping will allow China to build a global expeditionary force while mitigating an adverse regional response.


IN SHORT, Chinese commercial interests, domestic public opinion and the international community are creating the strategic demand, domestic support and legitimacy for a more global PLA. Given these factors, China’s global power-projection goals will be real, but modest. An effective global capability is not inevitable—even if Beijing responds to these pressures and assigns the PLA more global missions, the PLA will still require significant development to succeed. China has clearly demonstrated it has the material capacity to develop the PLA quickly and comprehensively, but an effective global capability will demand some very specific changes to its current posture. China is particularly weak in the key enablers required for expeditionary capability—airlift, sealift and logistics. But if China invests in the right platforms and technologies—such as large transport aircraft and tankers, amphibious combat ships, hospital ships and landing-dock platforms, and a robust, space-based ocean-surveillance system—conducting limited global operations will become more possible. Likewise, new global missions such as personnel recovery and infrastructure protection would probably encourage the development of more special-operations forces, engineers and civil-military cooperation units.

At the same time, while acquiring the requisite military platforms and units is a formidable and obvious challenge, it is only one piece of the puzzle. The PLA will also face other organizational and doctrinal impediments to realizing a global expeditionary capability. First, effective and rapid deployment outside China’s immediate neighborhood will require organizational reforms to enable more jointness between the PLA’s services and with civilian agencies. Unlike in most operations to date, the complexity of contested operations abroad will require capabilities from multiple services and coordination with civilian entities. More ambitious organizational reforms could address the currently cumbersome command-and-control structures. These reforms would signal growing institutional capacity for global expeditionary operations. Second, the PLA would need to improve its individual and unit training to cope with new global missions. Today, field-training exercises are notoriously scripted and unrealistic. More effective training will be required as the PLA deploys on increasingly risky operations abroad. Third, Beijing may consider revising its overseas military footprint. Despite the fears of many, China is unlikely to seek military alliances or to establish permanent military bases overseas. It would consider such moves ideologically anathema and strategically imprudent. It could, however, make arrangements to use existing facilities—in the Indian Ocean, for example—to restock and refuel.

The exact shape and capabilities of a global expeditionary PLA in a decade or so remain uncertain and contingent. While Beijing’s motivations may be relatively narrow, such new and expansive PLA capabilities will have much wider implications for its traditional war-fighting goals as well as future articulations of strategy and interests.


ONCE THE PLA has the ability to intervene abroad, and ideological barriers have been loosened, the Chinese leadership may become more interventionist. To date, China has been more willing to deviate from its policy of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs if it is doing so in a multilateral and permissive environment. However, as limited Chinese operations around the world become accepted as normal practice, this may open the doors for a more assertive China in its own region.