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.
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.
A more assertive China may be a positive development for the United States, especially if it leads to greater Chinese cooperation on issues such as energy security, stability in the Middle East and climate change. One possible future scenario is that China relaxes its noninterference principle as its interests expand and overlap with those of the United States, leading to coordination between the two countries on global issues. But there are three reasons to question the feasibility of this ideal outcome. First, as the North Korean nuclear standoff has demonstrated, even when Chinese and American interests overlap, divergence in their preferred tactics can inhibit progress on the issue at hand. Second, China defines its core interests narrowly, in domestic terms, while the United States is more likely to view issues from the perspective of maintaining the current global order. The United States has historically attempted to influence the outside world to ensure its safety, but Chinese leaders believe that strengthening the country internally enhances its national security. This difference in strategic thinking can lead to different preference rankings for the types of international issues that need to be addressed, and which aspect of an issue is the most disconcerting. For example, both the United States and China regard North Korean denuclearization and stability as imperative, but while the United States prioritizes the former, China considers the latter to be a higher priority. Last, abandonment of the nonintervention principle to facilitate its new global expeditionary mission would mean the potential for Chinese interference in areas where the United States may prefer China’s traditional hands-off approach.