The View From Asia: China's overseas interests and ties with US

PLA obliged to protect overseas interests

Two commentators from Beijing-based China Daily argue for a rethink of China's protection of its overseas interests and US-China relations.

BEIJING • Chinese national Fan Jinghui was beheaded by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists last November. Of the fewer than 10 Chinese citizens kidnapped overseas for ransom, this ended in the most appalling of crimes. The question is: What can China do apart from strongly condemning such incidents?

An easy answer, as many Chinese netizens have said, is to follow the United States, Russia, France and Britain to conduct air strikes on the ISIS strongholds.

Technically speaking, China's Su-30, JH-7, H-6k or drones could carry out such air strikes. But to do that, China needs bases overseas, which it doesn't have. And the only Chinese aircraft carrier is still undergoing trials.

Besides, it is not clear whether a foreign government, however friendly it may be, would allow Chinese aircraft to use its territory or airspace to strike ISIS targets. Also, adequate logistics supply and real-time intelligence are needed to make such a decision.


Chinese submarines and warships taking part in a fleet review. According to China's 2015 Defence White Paper, the PLA's strategic tasks include safeguarding China's overseas interests and world peace, and counter-terrorism. PHOTO: REUTERS

 

But that doesn't mean China can only express anger over such heinous acts of terrorism. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China's institutionalised authority and unequivocal attitude are already reflected in the UN resolution that called for combating ISIS using all possible means. And China will continue to wield its power at the UN to support military strikes on ISIS by Russia and the West, and help cut off the financial chain of the terrorists.

China will resolutely prevent and combat separatists in its Xinjiang region because it wants to curb separatists' activities in other parts of the country and sever their links with ISIS. About 1,000 Xinjiang separatists have reportedly joined ISIS.

More importantly, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) will strengthen its overseas capacity. According to China's 2015 Defence White Paper, the PLA's strategic tasks include safeguarding China's overseas interests and world peace, and counter-terrorism.

So what are China's overseas interests? They include the safety and security of Chinese nationals and property, and the security of Chinese investment and sea lanes, and gas and oil pipelines. Many of these interests are along the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which overlap the "arc of instability" that stretches from Sub-Saharan Africa through North Africa into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and South and Central Asia to South-east Asia.

Strengthening China's overseas military capacity is in the interest of not only China but also the rest of the world. For example, along with 613 Chinese nationals, Chinese ships also evacuated more than 279 citizens of 15 countries from Yemen. So far, Chinese military operations overseas have focused more on protecting people, rather than using force. This self-restraint and minimal use of force reflect China's cautious stance which is deeply rooted in its policy of non-interference. And until now, this policy has best helped protect Chinese nationals overseas.

About 100 million Chinese travel abroad each year and more than one million Chinese are working in Africa alone. But only a few of them have been kidnapped abroad, mostly for ransom rather than differences in values or ideology. But how long can this continue?

China hasn't been engaged in a war for more than three decades. And the next war for China may not be with a neighbour. Instead, it could be far away from its borders, to safeguard Chinese overseas interests and the well-being of not only Chinese citizens but also that of other countries. As China gains in overall strength, the distinction between its national interests and its international responsibilities will blur further.

  • The writer is an honorary fellow with the Centre of China-American Defence Relations, affiliated to the Academy of Military Science, a Beijing-based research institute of the People's Liberation Army of China.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2016, with the headline 'China's overseas interests and ties with US'. Print Edition | Subscribe