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Safeguarding China’s Overseas Interests Through Military Cooperation

Jun 26 , 2015
  • Zhou Bo

    Honorary Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science

In the recently published China’s Military Strategy white paper, China’s overseas interests are stressed like never before. Securing China’s overseas interests is taken as one of the “strategic tasks” of China’ s armed forces, and the PLA vows that it will strengthen international security cooperation in areas crucially related to China’s overseas interests. 


What are China’s overseas interests? Where are these crucial areas and cooperation with whom? The succinct white paper hasn’t specified. As the largest trading nation and the second largest economy in the world, it is difficult to breakdown China’s overseas interests. Today China’s interests are not only global but in outer space too (a point people seldom think of).

As a rule of thumb, these overseas interests should include, but are not limited to, security of China’s foreign trade of import and export; security of Chinese nationals and property overseas; security of Chinese investment and security of sea lanes, gas and oil pipelines that are critical to China’s energy import. Additionally, great nations shoulder great responsibilities. As China grows in not only strength but also international political and economic influence, China’s international responsibilities will grow together with its national interests.


China’s overseas interests are endangered in the course of proliferation. Chinese workers were hijacked in Sudan, Algeria, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Afghanistan and sometimes were even killed. Before the war in Libya in 2011, the PLA helped evacuate 35860 Chinese nationals within two weeks, but huge amount of Chinese property and investment were ditched behind. Given the fact that 90% world trade is maritime trade, China’s concern over the security of sea lanes cannot be more justifiable. The oil and gas pipelines linking Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Myanmar with China could be easy targets of terrorist attack. China’s One Belt, One Road initiative covers an “arc of instability” stretching from sub-Saharan Africa through North Africa, into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and South and Central Asia, to Southeast Asia.

China today has two dilemmas: China doesn’t harbor any global security ambition, but its interests are already global; China vows to be a responsible power, but the Chinese military hasn’t all of the capabilities required to safeguard its national interests and fulfill it international responsibilities. Citing cooperation in areas crucially related to China’s overseas interests, the white paper has actually admitted PLA’s lack of capacity and experience. Such inability is reflected in some bitter lessons. For example, when Chinese ship De Xinhai was hijacked in the Indian Ocean in October, 2009, Chinese state media had to point out that the ship was 1,080 nautical miles away from the Chinese naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden, a hint that PLA naval vessels were simply too far away for an immediate rescue.

International cooperation is the only way out for the PLA working overseas. The white paper pledges that the PLA will “constantly explore new fields, new contents and new models of cooperation with other militaries” and “pushing ahead with pragmatic military cooperation”.

Cooperation requires the PLA to share interoperability with other militaries. NATO, EU members and American allies use same rules of engagement and communication systems while the PLA is hugely different in language, weaponry, communication systems and chain of command. This to some extent explains why over 6 years PLA naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden are still patrolling independently five nautical miles north of the International Recommended Transit Corridor where most international navies are working together. It is no surprise the white paper emphasizes “enhancing joint operational capabilities”.

The first step of cooperation could be in the military operations other than war (MOOTWs). Unlike wars led by the West in the name of “humanitarian intervention”, these areas are not controversial. The PLA has been involved in MOOTWs for years. In humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, be it domestic or overseas, the PLA has demonstrated its capacity and experience.

Cooperation may take different forms. The Gulf of Guinea is one of the crucial sources of China’s oil imports, but armed robbery at sea is rampant and one Chinese ship, Yue Liang Wan, was hijacked there. The PLA can provide more technical assistance, particularly to the navies which have boats and light frigates made in China. Currently seven out of nine of the PLA’s peacekeeping operations are in Africa. China can continue its financial support to the peacekeeping troops under the umbrella of the African Union and joint hands with EU and the US to train African peacekeepers. The Chinese and the US military could cooperate in pandemic disease research such as Ebola in Africa. In the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting Plus framework, China can intensify its cooperation focusing on maritime security, counter-terrorism, de-mining, military medicine, disaster relief and peacekeeping.

Another important cooperation could be on security of sea lanes. Countering piracy in the Indian Ocean is a brilliant example of how the international navies could work in tandem to secure sea lanes that are pivotal to international maritime trade. With 85% of Chinese oil imports going through the Strait of Malacca, the importance of the strait cannot be over-emphasized. The Chinese military could send liaison officers to joint ReCAPP in Singapore, which monitors the piracy and armed robbery situation in Asia, and provide technical assistance to the countries that are currently involved in air and sea patrols of the strait.

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