The role of the Chinese military beyond its ‘near abroad’: Implications for global security

To increase its capabilities, the military has increased its participation in combined exercises with regional partners, and become a major contributor to peacekeeping operations. China has only one military base abroad, in Djibouti, but it is expected to add another in Pakistan. An Overseas Operations Office was set up in 2016 to plan deployments. With millions of citizens working abroad, China may in the future have to deploy its military to conduct large-scale evacuations from unsafe areas—with unpredictable results for local and global stability.

The burgeoning interest of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in becoming a global leader has increased significantly in 2017. China’s foreign policy of ‘striving for achievement’ (fenfayouwei) expands its interests to the greater periphery and calls for proactive efforts to achieve the two centenary goals: domestic prosperity and a strong, peaceful socialist stateFootnote 19  . In the state-of-the-nation speech given by Prime Minister Li Keqiang in early 2017, the terms quanqiu (global) or quanqiuhua (globalisation) were used thirteen times, compared to five times the preceding yearFootnote 20  . Xi’s 2017 Davos speech and the Two Guidelines signal the PRC’s willingness to create and lead a new global order and take on ‘responsibility’ in a new, more proactive role that benefits the international system as a wholeFootnote 21  .  At the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping noted that China has “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” and lauded the country’s “international influence, ability to inspire, and power to shape … global peace and developmentFootnote 22  ”.

China hopes to expand its global role beyond that of economic cooperation to include greater influence in the realm of security and politicsFootnote 23  . This paper attempts to draw the implications for international security as China’s global role develops by looking at the PRC’s past record with respect to four main security activities: peace-keeping, combined military exercises, an overseas military presence, and overseas military operationsFootnote 24  .

Exercises and military exchanges

Chinese military diplomacy in the form of combined exercises and overseas exchanges has grown in the past few yearsFootnote 25  . According to Chinese scholars, exchanges are a form of military diplomacy that allows the PRC to “build and consolidate Chinese strategic points” and to ensure that others are “aligning” with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)Footnote 26  . Writing in 2010, Dennis Blasko, the former US army attaché to China, noted that “the general trend lines observed include an increasing number of relatively small-scale, short-duration exercises, conducted mostly with forces from China’s immediate neighbours, in non-traditional security missions that support Beijing’s larger, foreign-policy objectivesFootnote 27  ”. In the near-decade since Blasko’s writing, however, China has increased the number of these combined exercises: while Blasko counted 24 combined exercises in which the PRC participated between October 2002 and 2009Footnote 28  , it conducted at least 25 bilateral or multilateral exercises in 2016 aloneFootnote 29  . According to a US Department of Defence (DOD) report on developments in China’s foreign military engagements, “many of these exercises focused on counterterrorism, border security, peacekeeping operations (PKOs), and disaster relief; however, some included conventional ground, maritime, and air warfare trainingFootnote 30  ”.

Moreover, with the exception of a combined medical exercise with Germany, all these exercises were conducted with regional partners. In other words, the PRC has yet to begin this type of military activity beyond its near abroad. Moreover, Chinese humanitarian missions in this region have been extremely limited. This suggests that, at least for now, the country is largely uninterested in a supplanting the US as a global military power in providing humanitarian aid to other countries.


The most common way that the PRC has expanded its military operations abroad is through UN peace-keeping. During the 2015 UN peace-keeping summit, President Xi pledged his country’s commitment to peacekeeping and offered more Chinese contributions, monetary and personnel, to UN peace-keeping missions. As of 31 January 2018 China contributes a total of 2,634 peace-keepers in the form of police, UN military experts on mission, staff officers, and troopsFootnote 31  . Peace-keeping also shows up in China’s military strategy papers as a core function of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)Footnote 32  .

How might Chinese participation in overseas stability operations evolve? First, it is important to note that Chinese contributions in terms of proportion of troops has been relatively stable, hovering at around 2 per cent for the past 10 years, while its financial contribution has risen steadily. China participates in peace-keeping largely to acquire operational experience for its troops and to build a positive international image; its current contributions allow China to do just that. Chinese media, for example, enjoys writing stories about the “touching” letters of thanks Chinese peace-keepers receive in Sudan and how appreciated Chinese soldiers are abroadFootnote 33  . Other studies suggest that Chinese PKOs have been effective “charm offensives” in Cambodia and LiberiaFootnote 34  . Therefore, Chinese financial contributions to the UN may increase, but troop levels are expected to stay relatively the same. If the PRC starts contributing more troops, this will be an indicator that its strategy with respect to the UN has changed.

One major indicator of an expanding PLA role in China’s global strategy would be Beijing embarking on its own peace-keeping or conflict-reconstruction missions, so not under the umbrella of the United Nations. The PRC would most likely be pushed in that direction if its interests and citizens were directly targeted or endangered. While China has largely kept out of the ongoing civil conflicts and fight against terrorism in the Middle East, China’s 2015 anti-terrorism law provides a legal basis for the PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP) to take part in overseas anti-terrorist operations. The PLA has yet to participate in any such operations although questions have arisen as to their possible presence in AfghanistanFootnote 35  .

Chinese overseas military presence

China’s overseas military presence is currently quite limited. The country’s only military base overseas is located in Djibouti, from which it supports its rotating naval escort task force that conducts anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. The task force consists of two guided-missile frigates and one supply ship. According to government statistics, the task force has escorted over 6,400 Chinese and foreign ships in 1,109 batches since 2008 Footnote 36 . The vast majority of its escort missions take place within the context of these anti-piracy operations.

Djibouti is likely only the first of many Chinese overseas bases. A potential next basing location is Jiwani, Pakistan (near the Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea). Though there is no official government confirmation that Beijing will build a base at this location, multiple sources in or close to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PLA have either confirmed the Jiwani location privately to media or published pieces in the People’s Daily or conservative Global Times arguing that China ought to and will construct more overseas bases soonFootnote 37  . A Washington Times report cites unnamed Pentagon officials as concerned that both of the PRC’s overseas bases “are located near strategic chokepoints [for oil shipping]—Djibouti near the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait on the Red Sea, and Jiwani close to the Strait of Hormuz on the Persian GulfFootnote 38  ”. The base would also significantly increase China’s power projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Moreover, analysts say that China will look towards the future to build bases along strategic points in BRIFootnote 39  .

The PRC’s overseas presence is likely to serve mostly narrow national purposes. To date, the country has refused to join the Three Forces in combined anti-piracy efforts—the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) and Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), the NATO-led Operation Ocean Shield, and the EU-led Operation AtalantaFootnote 40  . This suggests again that Beijing has little interest in a broad global role as the US defines it, but may selectively increase its military presence and operations in accordance with its own economic imperatives.

Chinese overseas operations

In 2015, it was recognised that the PRC needed an institutionalised response to deal with any crisis abroad that directly affected Chinese interests or harmed Chinese citizens. The PLA Overseas Operations Office (OOO), established in 2016, was an attempt to meet these needs. The purpose and the main responsibilities of the OOO are to plan, prepare and implement the PLA’s and PAP’s non-war activities overseas, including coordinating overseas military operations, international peace-keeping, escorts and convoys, international rescue missions, and the evacuation of Chinese citizens; participating in international military exchanges; and coordinating with Chinese authorities and agenciesFootnote 41  .  This operations office is the highest-level office in the PLA that solely deals with the PLA’s international operations, which reveals the PRC’s increasing emphasis on overseas interests and its intent to expand its missions abroadFootnote 42  .

One of the most likely operations the PLA will be involved in overseas is that of non-combatant evacuations (NEOs). As of 2013, over 40 million Chinese citizens were living and working overseas across 151 countries, with a notable rise in Chinese citizens located in Africa and Central AsiaFootnote 43  . This number will only increase as China continues exporting workers for BRI and sending soldiers to conflict areas on UN PKOs Footnote 44 . As more Chinese citizens go abroad, Beijing is compelled to protect them against “risk incidents” that might occur due to political instability, unsafe working conditions, and natural disastersFootnote 45  . Domestic surveys have revealed that Chinese citizens strongly support NEOs and view protecting Chinese citizens abroad as one of the core functions of government. It is therefore unsurprising that the biggest box-office hit in Chinese history was Wolf Warrior II, a film about a Special Forces operative who travels to an unnamed African country to save Chinese hostagesFootnote 46  .

The Chinese government also faces increasing domestic political pressure to use its military to protect Chinese nationals abroadFootnote 47  . According to a 2012 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a total of 6,000 Chinese citizens were evacuated from upheavals in Chad, Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Solomon Islands, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Tonga between 2006 and 2010. In 2011 alone, the PRC evacuated 48,000 citizens from Egypt, Libya and Japan. The Libya NEO was the first time the military assisted in such an operation, and it marked the longest known deployment in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) history. Given domestic support and past experiences, if conflict were to break out that put a large amount of Chinese citizens at risk, Chinese forces would likely move to evacuate them.

As with the 2011 Libya NEO, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be the lead organiser with heavy PLA involvementFootnote 48  . Other agencies such as Commerce, Public Security, the Civilian Aviation Administration, and the local embassy are also likely to be involved. Chinese military authors suggest that both the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the PLAAF may play key roles under the umbrella of the PLA’s OOOFootnote 49  . It is difficult to judge but based on Chinese writings, it seems that there is a lack of coordinated planning between these two entities as well as NEO-specific training within the PLA. Moreover, according to Chinese sources, the country still needs to improve its early-warning capabilities, streamline the procedures for information-sharing between Chinese agencies, and decrease response times in order to carry out successfully and efficiently large-scale NEOs.

According to Michael Chase, a China expert at the RAND Corporation, China has a number of platforms that could be leveraged in a NEO: the PLAN’s three Xuzhou-class large amphibious ships and an aircraft carrier; and the PLAAF’s large transport aircraft (China currently relies on imported Il-76 transport aircraft, but is developing its own large transport aircraft, the Y-20).Chartered flights are likely to play a crucial role as well. As of 2016, there were reportedly 5,046 civilian aircraft in China that could be repurposed in a contingencyFootnote 50  . According to Jane’s Intelligence, Air China alone has about 60 civilian aircraft that all together have a passenger payload of 18,622 people. Unlike the US, the PRC does not require approval to execute something akin to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF).

While past NEOs relied almost exclusively on civilian capabilities, with the notable exception of Libya, the PLA is likely to play a larger role in future NEOs for three reasons. First, given the amount of citizens needing assistance in most locations, China will want to use all assets at its disposal. It evacuated an impressive 36,000 citizens from Libya in ten days, but it has more than that many citizens in at least twenty other countriesFootnote 51  . Second, the PLA is also looking to test and demonstrate its skills after the reforms. And finally, a successful NEO would boost the PLA’s image domestically and internationallyFootnote 52  .

Implications for the West

Today, overseas operations tend to be restrictive and, at least doctrinally, defensive in nature, with a focus on protecting Chinese political, economic, security and cultural interests, as well as “building cohesion and patriotism among local and overseas ChineseFootnote 53  ”. This review of the nature of Chinese overseas operations and presence, including military exchanges, exercises and peace-keeping missions, suggests two broad themes. First, the country has been largely interested in participating in PKOs and the anti-piracy effort to gain operational experience, not to contribute broadly to global peace and security. If Beijing had plans to contribute more broadly, we would see it conducting combined exercises with countries outside the region, emphasise humanitarian missions as much as PKOs, and cooperate with other nations in anti-piracy efforts. In short, the PRC’s global aspirations are limited to conducting the types of operations that support its bid for regional hegemony and protect its economic interests, and it does not aspire to take on a greater burden at this time.

This creates a situation in which the most likely scenarios are Chinese free-riding or Chinese vigilantism. Vigilantism refers to the PRC acting in a way that does not accord with either international norms or stated Chinese principles of non-interference. Potential examples include the PLA launching an operation in which it enters a foreign country without permission to rescue hostages. Another scenario may be pre-emptively stopping the imminent destruction of an oil pipeline or energy resource on foreign soil to avert severe consequences for Chinese economic interests. Vigilante behaviour would likely be the worst scenario for the US, as it would pit Washington and its partners against Beijing. Also, given the minimal opportunities for consultation, the PRC would be more likely to act in a way that is further destabilising for the country in question, which could undermine other international effortsFootnote 54  .

In sum, most of China’s military activities abroad are not likely to expand drastically over the next few years, with the potential exception of building more overseas bases. This is because China is relatively uninterested in taking on the full spectrum of activities and responsibilities necessary to be a global power. This does not mean there is no cause to worry. With greater capabilities at its disposal, China may become more likely to use its military arm to protect its expanding economic interests. With little experience and local knowledge, such action could further destabilise a country or region, leaving other countries to clean up China’s mess. Or if these trends do not continue, and the PRC begins to expand its global activities to match those in the region, this will indicate a significant shift in Chinese military strategy.

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