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(Book excerpt) Protecting China's Interests Overseas: Securitization & Foreign Policy
Andrea Ghiselli explores & pinpoints in a systematic way the origin & evolution of China's approach
Pekingnology is privileged to publish an excerpt of Protecting China's Interests Overseas: Securitization and Foreign Policy by Andrea Ghiselli today.
Andrea Ghiselli is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA) of Fudan University. He is also a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the TOChina Hub and the Head of Research for the TOChina Hub’s ChinaMed Project. He is also a member of the Editorial Team of OrizzonteCina.
Protecting China's Interests Overseas: Securitization and Foreign Policy was published last year by the Oxford University Press, which described it as
This is the first scholarly book-sized study that explores and pinpoints in a systematic way the origin and evolution of China's approach to defending its interests overseas and the use of its military to do so.
provides a uniquely comprehensive and in-depth analysis of how China makes and carries out its foreign and security policies.
provides new critical insights into the drivers of Chinese foreign and security policymaking and allows the reader to reflect on how we study Chinese foreign policy and the need to find new ways to do so.
On March 2, 2011, just as the civil war was raging in Libya and Western countries were about to launch air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s military, China completed the evacuation of some 36,000 of its nationals from the North African country. On March 15, the official newspaper of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the PLA Daily (People’s Liberation Army Daily), published an article arguing that the events in Libya marked a turning point for Chinese foreign policy: a crisis in a third country had never impacted Chinese interests abroad as much as this one. According to the military commentator, China’s “interest frontiers”—the geographical space that is defined (and constantly redefined) by the evolution of China’s interests and the threats to them—had never been so far from its geographical borders. Suddenly, the need to protect them had suddenly become a powerful factor in the equation of Chinese foreign policy. In particular, this need caused the transformation of the Chinese foreign and security policy machine, thereby allowing for the expansion of China’s security footprint overseas.
China’s military presence outside Asia, in the Middle East and North Africa in particular, has never been larger than it is today. Over 2,600 Chinese “blue helmets” are deployed abroad in United Nations peacekeeping operations in ten countries. Since 1990, when China sent its first military observers abroad, China has deployed more than 30,000 peacekeepers (Gu 2016). At the same time, the PLA Navy has been patrolling the Gulf of Aden for more than ten years. China’s first overseas military base was inaugurated in the East African country of Djibouti in August 2017. What was meant to be a simple logistics hub turned out to be a base capable of hosting armored vehicles and helicopters. Eight thousand Chinese troops have also started the necessary training to join the United Nations Peacekeeping Capability Readiness System, a newly formed rapid-deployment standby force. The number of employees of Chinese private security companies sent abroad has grown to the extent that, in 2016, they outnumbered the peacekeepers deployed by China (Bi 2017).
That protecting the interests overseas comprises a military component seems to be part of the foreign policy consensus in Beijing today. Zhou Ping (2016, 2018), a professor who works as an advisor to the State Council, wrote that China must extend its “strategic frontiers” to make them overlap with its interest frontiers by establishing a military presence there. Hence, the expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Liu Zhongmin (2018, 49), candidly wrote that “along with the continuous expansion of China’s overseas interests and the increase in international responsibilities... we need to discuss what is an appropriate presence of our military forces abroad.” China’s top policymakers have indeed discussed this issue, and, during the first meeting of the Central National Security Commission (CNSC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), held on April 17, 2018, Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping declared that protecting China’s overseas interests is an essential part of the efforts to defend the country’s economic development and national security (People’s Daily 2018).
That a country resorts to military means to protect its interests on its frontiers is not a new phenomenon in history. Balancing territorial defense and protecting interests in faraway regions, as Paul Kennedy’s seminal study (1987) on the rise and fall of great powers shows, have always been two of the main challenges that all aspiring great powers have had to face. John Semple Galbraith (1960) analyzed the same problem in the case of the British Empire by, interestingly, using the term “turbulent frontiers,” an expression very similar to that used by the Chinese commentator in the PLA Daily.
Yet this is not an obvious development for China. Besides cases like Taiwan and the protection of its own territorial integrity, the security and military dimensions of China’s foreign policy have long been suppressed in favor of a business-only approach to the world, especially outside Asia. Yitzhak Shichor (2005, 235) aptly described it as China’s “Japanized” foreign policy. Hence, what is happening can clearly be understood as the beginning of a major change in China’s international orientation (Hermann 1990). Therefore, how has the need to protect its interests at the frontiers influenced Chinese foreign and security policy? That is to say, how has the presence of Chinese nationals and assets abroad been framed as a security issue in the Chinese foreign and security policy debate? What parts of China’s foreign and security policy machine were involved in such a process and, at the same time, shaped by it?
This book argues that, so far, what happened in China does not seem to differ significantly from what other scholars have noticed when other great powers have had to deal with the same problem. On the one hand, crises abroad put pressure on Chinese civilian and military elites to acknowledge that protecting the lives and assets of Chinese individuals and companies overseas had to be included in their understanding of national security and, therefore, new policies became necessary. On the other hand, uncertainty, lack of clear information and experience, and different interests within the bureaucracy have undermined the emergence of a well-thought-out strategy until very recently. Indeed, despite the obvious differences between today’s China and the imperial powers of the past, such as the British Empire described by Galbraith, the vocabulary used by Chinese commentators to describe the problem is not the only similarity. Chinese policymakers share the same difficulties in devising a clear strategy and directing the vast and different agencies under their command to tackle the problem of defending the country’s interest frontiers in a coordinated way. After all, China’s policymaking process is rather fragmented, with a growing number of actors competing for influence and resources (Lampton 2001, Mertha 2009). At the same time, modern China has scant global experience and its elites have little understanding of what is happening outside Asia and—until the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House—the United States. As a prominent Chinese scholar involved in the country’s international aid program commented:
When we go to a Southeast Asian country, we cannot understand their language, but we feel at home and find it easy to carry out projects with them. In Africa, everything is different, so it is hard to know how to proceed. (Stallings and Kim 2017, 24).
By late 2016, Xi became the “core” of the Chinese leadership, a title that his predecessor could not boast of having held. In foreign policy, he has quickly built his reputation as a leader determined to take China on “the road to national rejuvenation” and has stressed the importance of the PLA becoming an army ready to fight and win on the battlefield. His call to improve war readiness was most likely a reference to the need to eliminate corruption as a major obstacle to the PLA’s modernization and as a corrosive factor in party-PLA relations (Lam 2013), rather than explicitly giving a warning about the possibility of fighting a war. An army capable of winning real wars is, in any case, undoubtedly also one of the pillars of his assertive foreign policy, which has made the more traditional security side of his security and military agenda stand out in the eyes of external observers.
After all, Xi inherited a desperate situation as Chinese leader. On the one hand, according to sources of the Hong Kongbased South China Morning Post, he witnessed how the two vice chairmen of the CCP CMC, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, isolated Hu Jintao and challenged his authority (Chan 2015). On the other hand, Obama’s pivot to Asia was picking up steam. While the airsea battle became officially part of American military doctrine in 2010, many Asian countries and the United States supported the idea of moving on with talks for the expansion of the TransPacific Partnership and its transformation into a regional freetrade bloc based on American standards. But that was not all: Xi also inherited the task of finding a solution to the many problems that emerged from the Libyan Pandora’s Box. In line with this, references to protecting Chinese citizens and legal persons overseas started to appear regularly in reports on the work of the government delivered by Premier Li Keqiang in the following years.
The urgency of addressing this issue can be seen in the comparison of the first two defense white papers published on Xi’s watch. Like Hu before him, Xi’s approach to security strategy has been composed of two steps: the formulation of a new concept and the description of what the PLA is meant to do in operational terms. Yet it is the 2015 white paper, not that issued in 2013, that introduced Xi’s new security concept. The titles of the two documents are telling in both their content and priorities: The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces and China’s Military Strategy (PRC State Council’s Information Office 2013, 2015). The first chapter of the 2013 defense white paper, which is entitled “New Situation, New Challenges, and New Missions,” describes a worrisome scenario. On the one hand, “some countries have strengthened their AsiaPacific military alliances, expanded their military presence in the region, and frequently make the situation there tenseer” and, on the other hand, “the security risks to China’s overseas interests are on the increase.”
Yet, while the instructions for the PLA to confront “some country” are rather vague, the white paper encouraged “active planning for the use of armed forces in peacetime, dealing effectively with various security threats and accomplishing diversified military tasks,” and referred to “strengthening overseas operational capabilities such as emergency response and rescue, merchant vessel protection at sea, evacuation of Chinese nationals, and providing reliable security support for China’s interests overseas” (PRC State Council’s Information Office 2013). As Chapter 7 further discusses, that same year, China deployed its first contingent of combat troops who were officially part of UN peacekeeping missions.
For the first time, the term “overseas interests” appeared in an official defenserelated document. By referring to “overseas interests” as an extension of “development interests,” the Chinese leadership clarified the new target of the government’s actions and policies beyond traditional state/regime survival was. Consequently, the PLA was called on to make the necessary preparations. Although the terms “development interests” and “maritime interests” had been used for many years and entailed the possible deployment of the PLA abroad for naval escorts, the creation of the term “overseas interests” marked an important change. Indeed, this term has been officially used only since the publication of the 2013 defense white paper, four years after the launch of the antipiracy missions in late 2008. Moreover, while “maritime interests” are usually associated with “maritime rights,” which originally referred to protecting China’s territorial waters and, only later, international waterways, the protection of Chinese nationals and legal persons overseas implies the possibility of the PLA operating in a foreign country. This also clearly entails a far more flexible interpretation of the noninterference principle, thus signaling the new level of priority attached to the nation’s interests abroad.
It took two more years to see the emergence of Xi Jinping’s new concept of security. As Wang Duo (2018), a professor at the PLA National Defense University, wrote, it was necessary to summarize and “systematize” the different aspects of security that have emerged over the years. According to him, this was the first—and a necessary—step in reorganizing China’s understanding of security and its security strategy as “domestic and external factors become increasingly more complex.” Hence, Xi Jinping introduced the idea of Holistic National Security during the first meeting of the CCP Central National Security Commission (CNSC) on April 15, 2014 (CCP Central Literature Research Center 2018, 35). During that first meeting, Xi declared that a new understanding of national security that has “the security of the people as its compass, political security at its roots, economic security as its pillar, military security, cultural security, and social security as its protection, and that relies on the promotion of international security” was necessary (People’s Daily 2014).
According to official party publications, Holistic National Security is now composed of “political security,” “territorial integrity,” “military security,” “eco nomic security,” “cultural security,” “social stability,” “technological security,” “cybersecurity,” “ecological security,” “resource security,” “nuclear security,” and “overseas interests security” (CCP Central Literature Research Center 2018, 17223). At the same meeting of the CCP CNSC where he outlined the concept of Holistic National Security, Xi Jinping declared that protecting China’s overseas interests is an essential part of the efforts to defend the country’s economic and national security (People’s Daily 2018). In his statement, he also pointed out that this was a particularly pressing issue, as China's human and economic presence abroad was expanding along with the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, a multibilliondollar plan to integrate the economic and logistic networks of the Eurasian continent.
referenceacknowledgementThe ”referenceacknowledgementThe concept of Holistic National Security, therefore, further consolidated the position of the lives and the assets of Chinese citizens and companies abroad as being among the most important referent objects of China’s security strategy. This evolution took place along with the more general acknowledgment that parts of China, that is, its companies and citizens, lay well beyond the country’s geographical borders, closer to events and phenomena that had little to do with China’s national security until recently. This is why the concept of Holistic National Security ” aims at balancing internal and external, traditional and nontraditional security, and protecting both China’s existence and its development interests (PRC State Council’s Information Office 2015).
Liu Yuejin (2014a, 2014b), a professor at the University of International Relations and a research fellow with the Council for National Security Studies, wrote that this attempt to balance different aspects of security means that the Chinese government is moving towards a concept of security where distinctions between external and internal, traditional and nontraditional, and so on are simply disappearing. After all, as Xi Jinping himself stated, national security “is entirely for the people, and relies entirely on the people” in order to “prevent and neutralize every kind of security risk and constantly improve the people’s sense of security” (People’s Daily 2016). As Tsinghua University’s Wang Zhenmin (2016) emphasized, it was the growing seriousness of nontraditional security threats that prompted the expansion of the Chinese leadership’s understanding of national security to include outer space, international waters, and other new areas of security as well as protecting the security of China’s overseas interests. In 2016, two years after it was spelled out for the first time, the People’s Publishing House published the Cadre Manual of the Holistic National Security Concept, thereby officially starting the systematic process of dissemination of the new concept among party, PLA, and government officials (Xinhua 2016).
Xi did not create a new term, such as Hu’s “diverse kinds of threats,” to describe the threats against Chinese overseas interests. Rather, official documents and reports on Xi’s statements are straightforward in identifying the threats, a likely sign of the urgent need to neutralize them. Reportedly, during an “important meeting” with the military in December 2012, Xi stated that international and regional instability, piracy, terrorism, and natural disasters were the main threats to China’s expanding overseas interests (M. Liu 2017, 38).33 While the 2013 defense white paper is less specific in this regard, the 2015 China’s Military Strategy highlights that Chinese interests and national security are:
vulnerable to international and regional turmoil, terrorism, piracy, serious natural disasters and epidemics, and the security of overseas interests con cerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication, as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue.
(PRC State Council’s Information Office 2015)
At another meeting held in February 2016, Xi further emphasized that Chinese nationals and organizations overseas faced an increasingly serious terrorist menace (M. Liu 2017, 38). The 2019 defense white paper, entitled China’s National Defense in the New Era, added that Chinese diplomatic missions, too, are in danger and that “overseas interests are a crucial part of China’s national interests” (PRC MOD 2019).
Against this background, the 2015 China’s Military Strategy white paper lists for the first time the protection of overseas interests as a “strategic task” and explains clearly what was then expected from the PLA:
A holistic approach will be taken to balance war preparation and war prevention, rights protection and stability maintenance, deterrence and war fighting, and operations in wartime and employment of military forces in peacetime To realize China’s national strategic goal and implement the holistic view of national security, new requirements have been raised for innovative development of China’s military strategy and accomplishing military missions and tasks. . . . China’s armed forces will work harder to create a favorable strategic posture with more emphasis on the employment of military forces and means, and provide a solid security guarantee for the country’s peaceful development. In response to the new requirement
coming from the country’s growing strategic interests, the armed forces will actively participate in both regional and international security cooperation and effectively secure China’s overseas interests.
(PRC State Council’s Information Office 2015)
The 2019 white paper repeated that the protection of China’s interests overseas is one of the “fundamental goals of China’s national defense in the new era” (PRC MOD 2019).
As far as publicly available sources show, Xi has not been so specific during important meetings with the civilian arm of the Chinese foreign policy machine. For example, he simply stated the importance of protecting the country’s overseas interests during the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in late November 2014 (PRC MFA 2014). Apparently, he did not mention the nature of the threats or specific ways to address them. It is difficult to find a clear reason for this difference. However, it is possible to put forward a credible hypothesis based on the words of scholars affiliated with China’s diplomatic system. Although Zhang Lili (2011), a professor at the Diplomatic Studies Institute of the Foreign Affairs University, praised the work of Chinese diplomats in Libya in 2011, Xia Liping (2015), another scholar at the same university, pointed out that the MFA was not fully prepared to deal with crises of that scale. For example, the MFA officially knew that only 6,000 (one-sixth of the total evacuees) Chinese nationals—those who had registered on the official list of the MFA—were in Libya in 2011. Moreover, the MFA issued a warning to travelers to Libya, the first of this kind, only on February 22, 2011. Although there might be other reasons, a mix of the rising level of threat and the difficulties met by MFA in protecting Chinese nationals abroad (see Chapter 6) probably pushed the top Chinese leaders to look at the military as the necessary instrument for protecting China’s interests and frontiers. At the same time, Xi Jinping has been a strong supporter of China’s involvement in international peacekeeping. In 2015, in front of the UN General Assembly, China pledged USD 100 million to the African Union standby force and USD 1 billion to establish the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund. These commitments were followed by a pledge to build a peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops from the Chinese armed forces. Therefore, diplomatic considerations, too, continued to make the PLA even more central to China’s peacetime foreign policy.
Again, Pekingnology thanks Andrea Ghiselli for making available the excerpt of his book Protecting China's Interests Overseas: Securitization and Foreign Policy published last year.
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