01 April 2009

International Rescue—China Looks After its Interests Abroad

Andrew S. Erickson, “International Rescue—China Looks After its Interests Abroad,” China Watch, Jane’s Intelligence Review 21.4 (April 2009): 50-52.

China’s naval deployment to the Gulf of Aden in December 2008 is an indicator of the country’s growing willingness and ability to engage in overseas operations. Such missions are likely to increase in coming years, focusing on protecting commercial interests and civilians. However, a lack of military capabilities and desire to appear benign should deter any significant deployments of land forces for the foreseeable future.

With millions of Chinese citizens travelling and working around the globe and significant remittances being sent back every year, China is developing the capacity to protect its assets abroad. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) dispatched three naval vessels to support international counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden in December 2008. This muscular effort is the clearest sign so far that Beijing is growing in its willingness and capacity to deploy military assets overseas to protect Chinese citizens and commercial interests.

This trend is likely to continue. Given China’s need for natural resources to fuel its economic growth and the penetration of more stable markets by Western European and United States businesses, Chinese firms have begun operating in some of the least stable, resource-rich areas in the world, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. In these areas they have increasingly encountered physical security problems including crime, terrorism and the risk of being drawn into internal conflicts, which has increased domestic and commercial pressure on Beijing to protect its operations and personnel.

However, there are limits to what Beijing is willing to undertake in the current environment. China’s rhetorical reticence to intervene directly in the sovereign affairs of another state means it is unlikely to deploy significant land forces to another country. China also lacks rapidly deployable military assets to field in multiple crisis situations in a short period of time. Further, Beijing’s desire to avoid criticism of its foreign policy and international concerns over its rapid economic and military development should ensure that wherever possible it will work within international security frameworks or in collaboration with other militaries. Nonetheless, the probability of increasing Chinese deployments overseas and a growing willingness by Beijing to undertake civilian or military missions to protect its interests will concern competitors and potential rivals in Northeast Asia and beyond.