THE CHINESE armed forces are on the move—but to where? For over a decade, academics, policy wonks and government officials have been engaged in a relentless debate about Beijing’s military capabilities and intentions. To some, China is an expansionist country akin to Wilhelmine Germany. Others argue that while China’s assertive behavior in its regional island disputes is disconcerting, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is completely focused on domestic stability and therefore lacks global ambition.
This debate about current Chinese capabilities and intentions is widespread, fervent—and beside the point. While the Chinese leadership would prefer to stay focused on internal development and regional issues, facts on the ground will increasingly compel the CCP to develop some global operational capabilities. Specifically, the burgeoning need to protect commercial assets and Chinese nationals abroad will lead the country to develop some global power-projection capabilities, regardless of its current plans. Even though the Chinese leadership will embark on this path with very limited goals in mind, Chinese thinking on how and when to use force could change once its strategy, doctrine and capabilities evolve to incorporate these new roles.
While the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will seek an increased global presence, this does not mean it will begin fighting major wars and stationing troops abroad. If we define global military power by the standard of the United States, no other country qualifies. Even the second tier of established military great powers—such as Russia, France or the United Kingdom—would probably not be able to sustain major combat operations outside their respective regions. The question here is not whether China would have the capacity to invade and occupy far-off countries, as only the United States can, but whether, like other second-tier powers, it will develop the capacity to project limited but meaningful force outside its immediate region.
Contrary to the extremes of the current debate, the Chinese military will be neither hollow nor a juggernaut. It will be neither a third-rate force confined to its region nor one that will embark on large-scale overseas combat adventures. Instead, over the next decade the PLA will likely develop certain capabilities designed to protect Chinese overseas interests. Personnel recovery, noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs), and the ability to threaten other countries’ assets to coerce, deter, compel or punish will be some of the main objectives of a global PLA.
There are real obstacles—technological, political and ideological—to the Chinese military’s capacity to operate abroad, even on a limited scale. Scholars often point to China’s failure to resolve these obstacles today as proof that there will still be impediments tomorrow. True, the PLA’s experience with expeditionary operations has been limited. To date, China’s participation in the antipiracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden is the most notable example of the PLA conducting expeditionary operations. It is true that China currently has no bases abroad, no long-range logistics capabilities and only rudimentary satellite coverage. However, if motivated, China could have all of these assets by the end of the decade. At the turn of this century, the idea of China with an aircraft carrier or Chinese participation in peacekeeping operations seemed improbable. Today, the issue of a global expeditionary capability is already on the radar of the Chinese leadership. In 2013, for the first time, China’s Defense White Paper included a section on defending overseas interests—and it has already taken steps down this path. There are three big reasons Beijing is likely to pursue this course.
FIRST, IN the near future, economic motivations will drive the development of China’s limited global power-projection capabilities. Approximately twenty thousand Chinese companies have a presence abroad. Chinese firms operate in more than 180 countries and regions, creating a constant demand for government protection of these assets. Furthermore, Chinese overseas investment is growing. At $60 billion, China’s annual overseas foreign direct investment (OFDI) in 2011 was twenty times the 2005 amount.
Energy and real-estate assets in particular have a high risk of being seized or damaged in anti-China protests or as a result of political instability. Almost half of the total Chinese overseas investment is in the energy sector, reaching nearly $400 billion. Chinese overseas property investment is expected to exceed $10 billion this year, while the total value of overseas real estate owned by Chinese people is around $3 trillion. In 2013, Chinese property developers invested $7.6 billion in the overseas market, which was a 124 percent increase from the year before. Images of damage to individuals’ property could create a public outcry in a crisis that would be hard for Beijing to ignore.
As Chinese investments increase, threats to those assets will increase in tandem. This is especially the case in politically unstable countries where nationalization or seizure is always a possibility, or in countries that have ongoing territorial conflicts where anti-China protests have often resulted in damage to Chinese-owned property. While still a fledging phenomenon, some recent examples demonstrate why China might be driven to develop limited expeditionary capabilities to augment its response options. For example, in June 2007, a Chinese company from Shandong Province was attacked in Togo, resulting in nearly 150,000 renminbi of property loss. In 2012, local mine workers at a Chinese company in Zambia protested against delays in implementing a new minimum-wage bill and killed the manager. In February 2013, Zambia’s government seized control of a Chinese-owned coal company’s assets for failing to comply with safety and environmental standards. And in May 2014, Vietnamese protesters set fire to Chinese industrial parks and factories to protest against China’s claim in the South China Sea. A one-thousand-strong mob also set fire to a Taiwanese steel mill in Ha Tinh Province (most likely thinking it was Chinese), killing sixteen Chinese workers.