China’s military ambitions are approaching Europe‘s backyard. There is potential for cooperation – but over the longer term, the two sides may find their interests conflict more often than not.
China’s military has left no doubt that it intends to expand its international presence beyond the Asia-Pacific region. In August, during a visit to Damascus, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei confirmed that Chinese troops would step up military training and humanitarian aid to President Bashir al-Assad’s Syrian government; only a few days later, Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said that China would strengthen military relations with Saudi Arabia. Earlier in 2016, Beijing announced that China would build its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) growing involvement in international security affairs reflects a shift in China’s national security outlook. The rapid expansion of China’s commercial and political activities around the globe is exposing Chinese citizens and assets to the threats of transnational terrorism, civil unrest, and anti-Chinese sentiment. Domestic expectations that Beijing will act to protect these citizens and assets, together with the government’s ambitions to shape global norms, are forcing a departure from the long-established doctrine of non-interference and pushing China to embrace military force projection abroad. For evidence of Beijing’s expanded ambitions, look no further than the recent expansion of the Ministry of National Defense’s Office for International Military Cooperation, which has reportedly added about seventy people since the PLA’s structural reform was announced in late 2015.
While it is unclear how exactly the PLA is going to operationalize its new mission, current developments hint at what kind of operations and trends we can expect to see in the future. China is contributing greater troop contingents to UN peacekeeping operations, and Beijing announced in August that China’s first ever standing UN peacekeeping force would enter into service by the end of the year. This, along with plans for the PLA to join counterpiracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea, seem to signify a clear trend toward growing Chinese involvement in expeditionary military operations other than war.
China’s new antiterrorism law, which allows for direct PLA involvement in counterterrorism operations overseas, also suggests that China is laying the ground for PLA participation in this kind of operation. Future PLA counterterrorism operations are especially likely in areas of Central and South Asia and the Middle East, which are of strategic concern to Beijing not only because of the potential for terrorist attacks against Chinese interests but also due to their location along Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. In addition, the protection of the Maritime Silk Road will require the PLA to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean and focus on conducting counterpiracy and counterterrorism operations along the route. To facilitate this, we are likely to see China build or acquire additional supply points in the region, possibly by expanding its current arrangements in Colombo, Sri Lanka, or Gwadar, Pakistan. China is currently financing the construction of a $1.4 billion port project in Colombo, and the state-owned China Overseas Ports Holding Company is operating the newly expanded deepwater port in Gwadar.
The PLA does not yet have the capabilities necessary for China to become a fully-fledged global security player, but the military’s modernization drive is narrowing this gap. Meanwhile, its current global activities, although limited, are enhancing Chinese troops’ operational experience and capabilities.
Traditionally, European thinking on China-related security issues has focused on the Asia-Pacific region. The picture is more complex today as the PLA’s force projection activities expand and Beijing’s military activism and defense diplomacy move closer to the European neighborhood. If European governments wish to protect their own interests, they must assess how their interests interact with China’s.
The PLA’s growing international activism is likely to have limited short-term impact on Europe. In fact, today China and Europe share certain interests when it comes to security in the European neighborhood, which creates opportunities for cooperation. Both sides feel the need to preserve the stability of the wider European neighborhood, which is understood to encompass the whole of Europe, plus Middle Eastern and North African countries along the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. On the European side, this notion has been reinforced by the ongoing refugee crisis and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, and Berlin. The expansion of Chinese assets and interests in the region, along with reports that Syria-based Uyghur militants were behind a suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan in August, are driving Beijing’s growing regional involvement. Building upon these overlapping interests, China’s increasingly prominent role in UN peacekeeping operations and stepped-up security diplomacy efforts in the wider European neighborhood could be a good starting point to deepen Sino-European cooperation, particularly on non-traditional security threats of mutual concern.
The longer-term implications of China’s growing international security activism are less clear. Judging from current trends, however, it seems likely that the PLA’s activities in the wider European neighborhood will continue to expand. Despite Beijing’s strong preference for operating within the framework of the UN, China is likely to start conducting bilateral and even unilateral operations in the region. This could increase the potential for conflict between Chinese and European interests in several areas – for example, it is already becoming difficult for Europe to ignore China’s support for Assad’s regime in Syria. Chinese interference in the country will further complicate the situation, possibly creating negative security spillovers for European countries.
The growing Sino-Russian alignment could act as another point of friction. China and Russia have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to cooperate at the UN, where Beijing has backed Moscow by vetoing four resolutions on Syria and abstaining on another two that dealt with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The annual military exercises conducted by the Russian and Chinese navies are also moving into the European neighborhood – in 2015 they were held in the Mediterranean – demonstrating the strategic importance of this region to both sides and allowing them to project power very close to Europe’s southern border. This is unsurprising for Russia, but it is a new development for China.
Potential PLA counterterrorism operations in the neighborhood could also cause problems for Europe. While there is some alignment between Chinese and European goals, the differences in approaches and priorities could cause friction. Independent, direct PLA intervention in unstable areas of the Middle East or Central Asia could lead to growing volatility in the region, negatively affecting European political and commercial interests. PLA operations, especially if not coordinated with other regional players, could drive terrorists underground, help bolster repressive governments, or cause civilian casualties, for example; in a worst-case scenario, a counterterrorism operation gone wrong could escalate existing conflicts. While these consequences are in no way exclusive to Chinese-led counter-terrorism operations, the proximity of the potential target area to Europe makes it an issue of concern for European governments, not least because they would suffer the harshest consequences.
Europe should strive to make the most of the current opportunities for cooperation with China to preserve the stability of the neighborhood. However, European nations should not lose sight of the potential for conflict in the longer-term. It is important to prepare for potential scenarios in which Chinese and European interests clash.
Message to EU: Engage Beijing
Given the uncertainty that still surrounds the PLA’s growing international involvement and its future prospects, European governments should focus first on building a knowledge base on China’s new security outlook and expanding force projection activities. Seizing the current momentum in support for more European coordination on security issues, member states should promote the joint monitoring of the PLA’s global activities, along with better information sharing, particularly regarding bilateral military-to-military dealings with Beijing. If adequately staffed and resourced, the European External Action Service could play an important role in promoting this kind of cooperation among member states, potentially through its affiliated EU Intelligence Analysis Center.
It would also be in Europe’s best interests to start engaging Beijing on the issues of security and stability in the wider European neighborhood as a way to establish communication channels that could pre-empt future conflicts. Though the EU is well-positioned to promote security cooperation in certain areas and issues, however, it is not the most appropriate institution to engage China on the security of the neighborhood; many relevant regional players are not members, and would thus be excluded from the institutional framework for conversations, an especially relevant concern following the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote. Europe should instead leverage other existing frameworks that include non-EU regional players. One such framework could be the OSCE, since it gathers all relevant actors around the table, including most European and Central-Asian states, as well as a number of North African and Middle Eastern nations. The OSCE could engage China on non-traditional security threats of mutual concern, such as the protection of critical infrastructure and the fight against transnational terrorism.
The expansion of China’s global security interests and the PLA’s growing international involvement, backed by improving expeditionary capabilities, are unlikely to stop. Europe and China have so far been able to avoid friction in the security arena due to their very distinct and separate spheres of influence. This, however, is bound to change as the PLA continues expanding its area of operations and begins projecting power closer to the European neighborhood.
This article was first published by the Berlin Policy Journal on January 10, 2017.