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Seize the Opportunity to Build up China’s Capacity to Protect Overseas Interests

Mar 21 , 2014

Malaysia Airlines mysteriously lost contact with its MH370 on March 8th, 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing; the destiny of the 12 crewmembers and 227 passengers (including 154 Chinese) remains unknown. The event has been followed by joint search and rescue efforts, mutual help, cooperation, and demonstrating a sense of community of common destiny, in which help comes from all sides when disaster strikes. It has also to a certain extent triggered comparison or even competition between parties in crisis management and, in particular, emergency search and rescue capabilities. 

Chinese government departments and security forces have responded to the incident with prompt and powerful actions. At the first moment, the Foreign Ministry talked to the relevant country, urging the latter to undertake major responsibilities; the Public Security Ministry dispatched a working group to conduct a joint investigation; the Transport Ministry and its Maritime Search and Rescue Center sent in professional search and rescue teams; navy ships and military aircrafts also joined the search. These security forces demonstrated high professionalism and capacity. 

However, compared with developed countries, the US in particular, China’s capacity to engage in security operations outside of its national boundary still lags far behind. The MH370 flight incident has to a certain extent reflected a shortage in China’s capacity to protect its overseas interests. A Wall Street Journal article about the US Navy’s search operations with everything from the naked eye to advanced radar technology more often needed in anti-submarine missions and involving two destroyers and one supply ship from the Seventh Fleet plus HM-60R helicopters and P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft carried onboard. Remember that the South China Sea is only an away field for the US military’s global operations. Such prompt actions fully demonstrate the US military’s superior capabilities to conduct security operations outside of its national boundaries. 

China has made remarkable progress and markedly strengthened its capacity in conducting such security operations, safeguarding its overseas interests and promoting regional and world peace. 

Since the end of 2008, the PLA Navy has participated in international escorts in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia. Sixteen escort flotillas have been sent, completing over 600 escort missions. 

The massive evacuation in early 2011 safely took 35,000 Chinese citizens out of Libya in a short period of time, demonstrating a very high Chinese efficiency. 

Another example was the establishment of a joint law enforcement mechanism to deal with cross-border crimes in the Mekong River basin, turning a bad thing into a good one. On October 5, 2011, 13 Chinese crewmembers on two boats were killed on the Mekong River. Upon Chinese advocacy, China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand issued a Joint Statement on Law Enforcement Cooperation along the Mekong River, leading to the arrest of the principal suspect Naw Kham and five others. Since then there have been no attacks of commercial ships on the Mekong. 

China has also contributed to world peace and stability by taking an active part in United Nations peacekeeping missions. In fact, it has dispatched more peacekeepers than the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. These soldiers and policemen carry out their missions in dangerous places and at the risk of their own security. 

The MH370 flight incident involves the lives of 154 Chinese passengers. 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. With this right timing, it is perfectly legitimate, and therefore easier to be accepted by the outside world. Such a move will also benefit peace and tranquility in the region and even the world at large. China should set its sights on the future and be prepared to support and safeguard its overseas interests. 

Such capacity building must be done systematically in the four following areas: 

The first is to provide guidance on the various “going-global” efforts. Chinese citizens are now in all parts of the world, engaging in trade and investment, study, travel, labor export and contracted projects. The relevant departments should be coordinated to provide services for these Chinese and their businesses. 

Then it is necessary to enhance intelligence collection so as to enable risk assessment and early warning for priority countries and high-risk areas. With regard to the proposals to build a silk road economic belt and 21st century maritime silk road, attention must be given to the related security risks and political challenges. Efforts must also be made to have full investigations in advance and monitoring in the whole process against various threats. 

A third area is to enhance capacity building and engage in international cooperation at the same time. Self-strengthening is essential to protecting the going-global efforts. China needs to speed up development and deployment of security forces overseas, seek innovative breakthroughs on the question of overseas military bases and institutionalize regular patrols and stand-bys at sensitive sea areas. It also needs to expand international cooperation in anti-terrorism, intelligence sharing, joint search and rescue exercises, etc. This author also suggests that China should propose to establish a South China Sea civilian maritime and air security dialogue and cooperation mechanism. 

The fourth is to accelerate law making to facilitate non-combat military operations overseas. 

Chen Xiangyang is Deputy Director of Research for the Institute of World Political Studies at CICIR.

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