- China’s Belt and Road projects in the Middle East come hand-in-hand with a growing security presence meant to protect Chinese citizens and assets, secure China’s access to the region’s energy and resources, and deal with terrorist threats originating in Middle Eastern countries.
- The PLA’s reform and restructuring continues, with the goal of making the armed forces into a modern, high-tech and internationally competitive force.
- Beijing’s international security diplomacy is primarily focused on countries along the Belt and Road, and it has an increasingly strong focus on terrorism.
- China’s force projection activities are mostly focused on military-operations-other-than-war, but Beijing also appears increasingly willing to deploy troops abroad in response to specific threats or conflicts.
- Chinese officials in the UN attempt to shape debates on issues ranging from Syria to non-proliferation regimes, with mixed results in this time period.
China’s security footprint in the Middle East has rapidly expanded over the last six months. This is a region with which Beijing has traditionally had very limited ties, shying away from regional conflicts and complicated internal politics. But now, as the United States scales down its presence in the region under President Trump’s America First agenda, Beijing is moving to try and fill the power vacuum. Examples of the Middle East’s growing importance in Beijing’s list of foreign and security policy priorities range from more intense security diplomacy and mediation efforts to a more regular military presence.
Between February and July this year, for example, defense officials from Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and the UAE visited Beijing to discuss security cooperation with China. Beijing also sent the PLA Navy (PLAN) to visit the region on several occasions. Navy ships called on ports in several Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Oman, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE. Some of these port calls were the first such visits in years. The Navy maintains a permanent presence in the waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea since 2008, as a result of its continued participation in counter-piracy operations. And this presence will only increase now that China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti has been officially established and troops have been deployed.
China has also signaled that it is willing to step up to the plate and help mediate in some of the region’s most intractable conflicts. Beijing has long been an active participant in multilateral efforts to broker peace in Syria and, although it is not strictly in the Middle East, in Afghanistan. In recent months, China has also offered to coordinate the improvement of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it has held talks with both Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss their conflict. Xi is even pushing China’s own four-point plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Besides, Beijing has offered to host talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the middle of the breakdown of relations between Qatar and the UAE – which was effectively a proxy conflict between longstanding rivals Riyadh and Tehran.
China is clearly invested in the Middle East’s stability, but why?
The Belt and Road Initiative: at the center of China’s Middle Eastern security push
Despite the high number of official Chinese statements to the contrary, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a project driven primarily by Chinese domestic interests. The goals of Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project include exporting China’s industrial overcapacity and providing further avenues for Chinese economic growth, securing China’s access to energy and resources, and raising China’s profile in the international arena as a major, responsible player. With sizable oil reserves, an important role to play in the fight against transnational terrorism, a business and political environment conducive to higher Chinese investment, and above all a highly strategic location at the heart of the Belt and Road, the Middle East is thus becoming a priority region for Beijing.
The Middle East has been growing in importance for China since the 1990s, as rising domestic energy demand combined with China’s new geopolitical concerns. However, as the Belt and Road Initiative pushes growing numbers of Chinese companies and citizens, as well as increasing amounts of capital, into the region, security has become a major concern. Pursuing Beijing’s main interests in the region, especially protecting Chinese citizens and assets, securing continued access to resources and markets and dealing with the threat of transnational terrorism, requires stability. China’s huge investment and infrastructure push, therefore, comes hand in hand with a growing security presence, making the Belt and Road into the main overarching driver behind China’s growing security involvement in the Middle East.
Energy and markets
China’s foremost interest in the Middle East is securing continued access to the region’s energy resources and trade routes. As domestic production of crude slows down, China’s expanding economy is heavily dependent on imported oil. According to International Energy Agency (IEA) statistics, over half of the over 7 million barrels of oil that China imports per day come from the MENA region, and the IEA expects these imports to double by 2035. This has turned China into one of the biggest trade partners of several countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE. BRI infrastructure projects across the region are also meant to help China bypass the chokehold of the Straits of Malacca. Currently, over 80 percent of China’s Middle Eastern energy imports pass through the straits, but the hope is that Belt and Road projects across the Middle Eastern region and in Pakistan will eventually allow China to pump oil supplies through pipelines all the way to Xinjiang.
These close economic ties between China and Middle Eastern countries also mean that thousands of Chinese nationals work in the region, as Chinese firms expand their presence there. In April, for example, state-owned giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) signed a deal to build its Middle East regional headquarters in Dubai. Beijing is thus under pressure to step up its engagement in the region to secure Chinese imports and investment, and to and protect its citizens and assets.
One of Beijing’s main foreign and security policy concerns, transnational terrorism and its links with Xinjiang and Uighur militants, is also deeply linked to the Middle East. China is concerned that some of the Uighurs who traveled to Turkey to escape unrest in Xinjiang have ended up fighting with terrorist organizations in the region and that they may plan attacks on Chinese soil.
These concerns were strengthened by a recent report of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which estimated that some 3,000 Chinese Uighurs are fighting for the Al Qaeda branch in Syria, and that several hundred more have joined ISIS. Some of these Syria-based militants were reportedly behind the attack against the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan in August 2016, and an ISIS propaganda video released in February 2017 showed Uighur militants directly threatening China. Dealing with this threat requires that Beijing becomes more invested in the stability and security of the Middle East, and that it closely cooperates on counter-terrorism issues with countries in the region.
The Middle East: a high-risk, high-reward region
Securing a stable environment in the region is thus crucial to Beijing’s needs. China needs a stable Middle East if it wants to expand its Belt and Road Initiative, access the region’s energy and resources and deal with terrorist threats originating in Middle Eastern countries. Beijing has responded to these requirements by expanding its security presence in the Middle East. From high-level security diplomacy to mediation efforts, Chinese officials are very present in the region today.
A growing presence in the Middle East has many upsides for Beijing. However, it also comes with increased risks. The 2015 Strategic Review by the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science noted that the implementation of BRI would extend China’s overseas interests into unstable regions, increasing exposure to security threats. These threats extend beyond the dangers of terrorist attacks against Chinese citizens and assets in the Middle East and pirate attacks against BRI trade routes. This region is fraught with geopolitical risk that can trip up Beijing’s efforts to turn China into an important global player.
Many Middle Eastern countries are historical rivals and their frayed relations have trapped many governments that have tried to get involved in the region. China’s lack of previous engagement in the region has allowed it to maintain friendly relations with most countries so far, and to appear as an honest broker. Beijing, for instance, maintains good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it has sold weapons to Israel for years while at the same time endorsing Palestinian statehood. This, however, will not last for long. As Beijing becomes enmeshed in highly complex and politically charged disputes with which it has little to no experience, China – and its interests in the region – will be exposed to increased risks.
Foreign and Security Policy
- Xi Jinping calls for China to shape international security policy. At a meeting of China’s new National Security Commission in February, Xi called for a “global vision of national security policy” and vowed to build up the capabilities necessary to achieve this. China should increase international cooperation and provide “guidance” to the international community.
- Focus on terrorism keeps growing. Terrorism is high on the list of Beijing’s security priorities. It was first recognized as an emerging security threat in the 2015 Defense White Paper, where it was listed as one of “three evils,” along with separatism and extremism. Threats and attacks against Chinese citizens between February and July (including the ISIS video threatening China and the killing of two Chinese citizens in Pakistan), as well as growing evidence of ethnic Uighur fighters joining ISIS have underlined this threat perception.
- Security cooperation along the Belt and Road becomes a priority. Beijing hosted a security cooperation dialogue on the Belt and Road only a few days before the main Belt and Road Forum on May 14-15. This dialogue was attended by officials from over 20 countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Discussions concentrated on counter-terrorism, public security and the protection of overseas interests. The government-issued Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (June 20) also includes a section on maritime security, emphasizing the conduct of joint search and rescue missions and the strengthening of cooperation in maritime law enforcement along the route.
Force Development and Capabilities
- Military budget rise continues to slow down. In March, Beijing announced a 7 percent increase in its military budget for 2017, reaching CNY 1.04 trillion. This is the smallest increase in years, after two-digit rises between 2010-2015 and a 7.6 percent increase in 2016. However, the opacity of China’s military budget and the fact that several defense-related costs are not included in this official figure suggest that real expenditure may be substantially higher.
- Force reform and restructuring continues. Xi’s military reform continues unabated. In April, Xi announced a major restructuring of its armed forces into 84 corps-level military units under the five regional commands. Soon after, the Ministry of Defense also announced that the PLA would streamline the previous 18 army groups to 13 (designated as the 71th to 83th group armies). Official PLA media reported on July 12 that the PLA plans to downsize its army to under one million, while providing more resources to the other services. The Marine Corps, for instance, will be expanded from 20,000 to 100,000 according to a government announcement from March 14. At a Politburo study session on the military, held on July 24, Xi continued to call for “all-out efforts” in pushing forward PLA reforms.
- National strategy for civil-military integration picks up speed. On June 20, President Xi once again emphasized the importance of civil-military integration at the first meeting of the newly-established Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civil Development. The goal of this commission, which Xi heads, is to push forward the modernization of China’s antiquated arms production system by top-level design, breaking through bureaucratic and institutional barriers. There have been a number of important developments on this issue this year:
- On February 24, the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC) issued a document on boosting civil-military integration in weapons development. This document introduced a set of measures to liberalize the weapons sector, including reducing restrictions on the types of weapons that private firms are allowed to develop by reducing the number of permits required, and establishing a pilot program for military procurement of commercial services in the aerospace sector.
- On March 5, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) declassified and made available to the public 2,346 patents in an attempt to facilitate the transfer of military technologies to civilian industries. This is the first time the PLA has declassified and published military patents since it began to register them in 1985.
- The central government has opened up some defense research and development projects to private firms in the hope that this will create more competition in the market and spur SOE reform. China's military is offering to fund 2,000 private projects on equipment and weapons research with up to CNY 6 billion this year.
- On June 23, the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) published the 2017 Civil-Military Integration Special Action Plan, months ahead of the expected publication date. This plan emphasizes the key role of top-level design and aims to promote the inclusion of civil-military integration in regional economic development plans.
- Committee focusing on high-tech weapons development revealed. On July 26, the 8th episode of the CCTV-produced “Carrying Reform Through to the End” documentary series revealed the creation of the Scientific Research Steering Committee (SRSC) earlier in the year. This new Committee falls under the direct supervision of the CMC and, along with the CMC’s Science and Technology Commission, will spearhead weapons-related research and innovation. The SRSC will act as a counterpart to the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for military use, often through investments in private firms and research projects.
- PLA unveils new equipment and capabilities. Between February and July, the Navy commissioned several advanced ships, including a new heavy-lift semi-submersible (March 14), its 5th Yuzhao-class landing platform (June 15), a new Type 055 destroyer (June 28), as well as China’s second aircraft carrier (April 26). The PLAAF, in turn, introduced the fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighter jets on March 10. Besides, new domestically developed aircraft took their maiden flights. These include the world’s largest amphibious aircraft, the AG-600 (April 29) and the Z-19E attack helicopter (May 18). All of these new capabilities are steps towards Beijing’s goal of developing an amphibious force capable of conducting and sustaining operations far away from China’s borders. In early 2017 there were also reports of various trials and tests of China’s newest missile systems. In January, Beijing reportedly tested its DF-5C intercontinental missile in what is widely seen as a response to the THAAD deployment in South Korea. In February, the PLA live-fire tested the new AR-2 short-range air-to-surface missile and released a video that seemed to show the DF-16 medium-range ballistic missile for only the third time ever.
- Defense companies focus on international market. Chinese defense companies have an eye on the international market for their new models. For instance, the home-developed Wing-Loong II UAV and the FC-1B/JF-17B dual-seat trainer – co-developed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex –, which successfully completed their maiden flights on February 27 and April 27, target international customers as cheaper alternatives to US systems. During Saudi King Salman’s visit to Beijing in March, a deal was sealed to set up the first Chinese drone factory in the Middle East in Saudi Arabia. This factory, which will make China’s CH-4 UAV, is the third of its kind outside China, after production sites set up in Pakistan and Myanmar.
- PLA demonstrates strength at 90th anniversary. On July 29, President Xi presided over a large-scale military parade at the Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia to celebrate the anniversary of China’s armed forces, which falls on August 1. In a demonstration of strength, the PLA displayed some its most advanced equipment – including DF-31AG ICBMs, J-20 and J-16 fighter jets and Xian Y-20 cargo planes. Xi gave a speech urging troops to “unswervingly follow the absolute leadership” of the CCP.
- CMC members exchange visits with Latin America and BRI countries. From February to June 2017, members of the CMC hosted military and defense delegations from 34 countries. Ten out of these 34 delegations came from Latin American countries, a region where Beijing is trying to expand its influence, especially through BRI-affiliated projects. While Latin America is not located along the original Belt or Road, the initiative has already moved beyond these two routes, allowing countries around the world to get involved and access BRI funding. Other delegations hosted in Beijing came mostly from countries along the Belt and Road in South East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Chinese officials also traveled abroad for meetings in countries along the Belt and Road, plus in a small number of African nations.
- European nations warm up to improving military-to-military relations with China. High-ranking military and defense officials from Switzerland, Italy, the UK, France, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belarus visited Beijing to meet with CMC members between February and July. CMC members, on their part, visited Spain, Finland, Belarus and Hungary.
- China uses military equipment donations to advance own agenda. While the Chinese government’s military equipment donations between February and July were generally small, the 9 receiving countries are all of strategic interest to Beijing. Beijing, for instance, donated USD 1 million in equipment to Serbia, a country where it is trying to increase its influence and achieve buy-in for BRI projects. In Liberia, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, Beijing is using military equipment donations to support the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, an issue of concern due to China’s growing economic involvement in the region and, therefore, growing exposure to pirate attacks. Besides, the largest military aid receiver in this period, the Philippines, received weapons worth $7.3 million to support Manila’s battle against ISIS-linked insurgents, yet another issue which is of deep concern to Beijing.
Port calls and joint exercises
- PLAN goes on tour. China’s counter-piracy task forces often call on ports in strategically important countries on their way back from deployment. In January and February, the 24th task force went on a tour of four Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait – in what was the first such visit since 2011 and a clear sign of Beijing’s interest in becoming more involved in the Middle East. The 25th task force visited Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand and Vanuatu before heading back to China. 2017 also marks the year of the PLA’s longest ever deployment overseas. On April 23, the 68th anniversary of the establishment of the PLAN, a three-ship fleet left Shanghai on a six-month friendship tour of over 20 countries around the world that has so far taken them to 14 countries along the Maritime Silk Road, from the Philippines to Saudi Arabia.
- PLA participates in over 20 joint exercises, with a strong counter-terrorism focus. Besides one major multilateral exercise – Aman-17, held in Pakistan in February – most of the PLA’s joint exercises during this time period were bilateral and on a rather small scale. The few exceptions are the most interesting due to their strong counter-terrorism and border protection focus. Chinese troops, for instance, held two large-scale counter-terrorism exercises with Nepal (April 16-25) and with Belarus (July 11-20), and they also conducted a similar, albeit smaller exercise with Kyrgyzstan in Xinjiang on June 27. The first half of 2017 also saw the first ever joint China-Russia drill in the Baltic Sea, as part of the annual Joint Sea 2017 exercise.
Leadership in Regional Security Frameworks
- China guides the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to focus on Chinese priorities. China has been pushing hard for the signing of an SCO anti-extremism treaty, which would build on a 2001 convention on the fight against the Chinese-defined “three evils”. Beijing came closer to this goal on June 28 at the 5th meeting of SCO border administration authority leaders, where member states pledged to strengthen border security cooperation to fight these “three evils”. At the 14th SCO defense ministers meeting, held in Astana on June 7, Chinese representatives also got the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism – China’s “three evils” – included in the final joint communique, as one of the SCO’s main priorities at the moment.
- SCO continues to expand. During the 17th SCO summit held in Astana, Kazakhstan, in June, India and Pakistan became full members of the organization, after years of Chinese reticence to admit India into the group. This is a remarkable change of position on the part of Beijing and probably reflects China’s wish to overcome India’s reluctance to become involved in the Belt and Road Initiative. Furthermore, Beijing has also indicated that it supports Iran’s bid to become a member and that it is ready to discuss Turkey’s membership in the SCO. While Turkey’s highly strategic location makes it key for the development of the Belt and Road Initiative, admitting the NATO-member would represent a clear jab at existing transatlantic security frameworks, making this a risky move for Beijing.
- Beijing hosts the 7th meeting of BRICS senior representatives on security issues. On July 27-28, senior security officials from BRICS countries – mostly at the minister or national security advisor level – met in Beijing. Discussions focused on global governance, counter-terrorism, internet security and other global and regional hot issues, according to official Chinese media.
- 2nd CICA non-governmental forum reflects Beijing’s priorities. The 2nd edition of this forum, held in Beijing in late June one year after the first one, focused on China’s foreign and security priorities, especially Belt and Road construction and “sustainable security” in Asia with special emphasis on counter-terrorism cooperation and cyberspace security.
Conflict Prevention and Resolution
- China takes on a more important role as mediator in the Syrian crisis. China has not abandoned its longstanding position on the Syrian crisis that the only way to solve the conflict is through a UN-led political settlement. As such, Chinese officials continue to participate in the latest rounds of international dialogues, both the UN-sponsored Geneva peace talks and the Russia-backed Astana talks. However, Beijing is now also getting more involved in a bilateral manner: over the last six months, China’s special envoy to the Syrian crisis, Xie Xiaoyan, has met with both the Syrian government and the opposition to try and broker a solution to the crisis.
- Beijing pushes for “peace and reconciliation” in Afghanistan. Chinese officials participated in both the six-party talks on Afghanistan held in Moscow in February, and in the international “Kabul Process” conference, held in Kabul in June. Using its good relations with both Kabul and Islamabad, Beijing also works towards the improvement of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. On June 25, Kabul and Islamabad accepted China’s proposal of establishing a trilateral crisis prevention and management mechanism with China’s mediation and participation. Beijing expects that this will help improve stability in the region and contain the threat of terrorism that China fears will spread to its territory via Xinjiang if Afghanistan and Pakistan fail to deal with it.
- China offers to mediate in the Israel-Palestine issue. In July, during Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to Beijing, Xi Jinping offered to host a “tripartite dialogue mechanism” with Israel and Palestine and outlined his “four-point plan” to end the conflict. This proposal envisions a two-state solution along the 1967 borders, strong security cooperation between Israel and Palestine, and the promotion of peace through development. China’s ambassador to the UN has since been trying to secure international support for this plan.
- Beijing’s offers to mediate in other conflicts rejected. Closer to home, Beijing has offered to help mediate in the Myanmar-Bangladesh conflict over the flight of Rohingyas into Bangladesh, as well as in the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. Both offers have reportedly been rejected. In July, Beijing also offered to mediate in the border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea. Kuang Weilin, the Chinese Ambassador to the African Union, even suggested that China would consider sending peacekeeping troops to the border between the two East African countries.
Law Enforcement Cooperation
- Beijing’s efforts to expand bilateral extradition agreements have mixed success. In March, the UAE extradited a Chinese fugitive wanted for contract fraud, in what was the first extradition since the two nations signed an extradition treaty in 2004. On June 27, the National People’s Congress ratified two new extradition treaties with Argentina and Ethiopia. And in February, Spain – which signed an extradition treaty with China in 2005 – agreed to extradite over 200 Chinese and Taiwanese alleged scammers back to China. The Australian Parliament, however, has temporarily shelved plans to ratify an extradition treaty with China due to concerns over Beijing’s inadequate protection of detainees’ human rights.
- Australia and Canada sign cyber pacts with China. In April and June 2017, Australia and Canada, respectively, signed two separate cyber security pacts with Beijing. In both cases, these pacts include pledges by the parties involved not to conduct or support actions with the aim to steal intellectual property or trade secrets from each other. They, however, do not make direct reference to political espionage or hacking for intelligence gathering purposes.
Military Operations Other Than War
- China contributes in strong force to UN peacekeeping operations. Between February and July, China maintained personnel in 10 different UN peacekeeping missions. As of June, the highest number of troops, 1,061 out of China’s total contribution of 2,515 personnel, was deployed in South Sudan under UNMISS. Chinese peacekeepers have also participated in some small-scale UN-run operations. In early June, peacekeepers deployed in South Sudan carried out a joint mission with the South Sudanese government to arrest illegal militants in Juba. Chinese peacekeepers in Mali were also sent to evacuate wounded government forces on two separate occasions, on February 4 and April 18.
- China continues to participate in Gulf of Aden counter-piracy mission. On April 1, Beijing sent China’s 26th escort taskforce to the region to take over from the 25th taskforce, which had been deployed to waters off Somalia since January. China has maintained a naval presence in the region to combat piracy since 2008.
- Chinese navy stops pirate attacks on merchant vessels. On April 9, the PLAN’s frigate Yulin, which was part of China’s 25th taskforce to the Gulf of Aden, supported by an Indian helicopter, stopped an attack by suspected Somali pirates on a Tuvalu-flagged merchant ship. Three suspected pirates who were involved in the attempted hijacking were then transferred to Somali authorities. Just one week later, over the weekend of April 15-16, the frigate Hengyang, also from the 25th taskforce, rescued a Panamanian-flagged merchant ship from suspected pirates.
Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief
- PLA medical teams deploy abroad. PLA medical experts currently provide treatment at the hospitals of the armed forces in Ethiopia and Zambia. Both teams departed China in January and will be deployed for one year. The PLA also maintains a medical presence in Sierra Leone: in July, Beijing sent its 19th medical team to the country to replace the previous team.
- PLAN ships on visit to Sri Lanka help in relief operations. On June 31, Navy ships that were docked in Sri Lanka’s Colombo port for a goodwill visit helped with the government’s disaster relief operations after a series of recent floods. The Chinese ships donated material and sent a medical team inland to treat the wounded.
- Rumors of Chinese troops on Afghan soil. In February, the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst think tank reported that Chinese troops and military vehicles were conducting patrols on Afghan soil. Beijing denied this, claiming that the law enforcement forces of Beijing and Kabul were simply carrying out counter-terrorism operations along their common border. Regardless of whether Chinese troops crossed the border, this kind of operation is another clear sign of China’s growing fear that extremism and violence in Afghanistan could spill over into neighboring Xinjiang.
- Chinese fighter jets intercept US planes. On three separate occasions in May and July, Chinese fighter aircraft were scrambled to intercept US surveillance planes in waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. These incidents were deemed “unprofessional” by the US Navy, as the US pilots claim that they had been flying through international airspace.
- China deploys troops to the Doklam area near the China-India-Bhutan trijunction. The standoff in Doklam (Donglang) – disputed between China and Bhutan – began in June when Indian troops confronted Chinese forces constructing a road in the area, accusing them of crossing the border with Bhutan. Beijing, in response, also sent troops to the area, which it claims as its own, beginning a military stalemate that continued as of August 1, in what was the most serious crisis in India-China relations in 30 years. Bhutan and China have no formal diplomatic relations but Thimphu maintains very close ties with India, which is why Indian troops were asked to intervene when Chinese troops allegedly crossed the border.
- PLA establishes first overseas military base in Djibouti. Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong, commander of the PLAN, ordered the base’s official establishment and conferred a flag to the base garrison at a ceremony to mark the departure of troops designated for the base on July 11. The base was officially opened on August 1, after the arrival of the troops. This base, officially designated as an “overseas support facility,” will not only support PLAN deployments to the Gulf of Aden but will also allow Beijing to expand its security presence in the Middle East and protect BRI routes and projects in the region by running additional operations when needed.
- China finalizes structures in South China Sea that could house missiles. According to the US Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on military developments in China, these structures appear designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles. The Pentagon also believes that China aims to base fighter jets on artificial islands in the area.
- Sri Lanka denies China’s request to dock a submarine at Colombo port. Sri Lankan officials announced on May 11 that they had denied Beijing’s request to have a PLAN submarine visit Colombo, responding to India’s concerns over the issue. This move was clearly designed to prevent an outcry from New Delhi similar to the one triggered in October 2014, the last time a Chinese submarine docked in Colombo. Despite Colombo’s efforts, with Chinese companies owning the majority of Hambantota port and investing heavily in infrastructure in the country, it is very likely that Beijing will eventually manage to set up a dual-use facility in Sri Lanka.
Cyber and Space Capabilities
- China signs satellite navigation declaration with unnamed Arab countries. On May 24, China and a number of unidentified Arab countries signed a declaration to pledge cooperation on promoting the use of China’s Beidou Satellite Navigation System in Arab states at the First China-Arab States Beidou System Cooperation Forum held in Shanghai. Representatives from the 21-member Arab League reportedly attended the forum, where Wang Li, chairman of the China Satellite Navigation Committee announced that Beidou will be able to provide positioning and navigation systems to the region from the end of 2018.
- China makes progress towards setting up its own space station. On April 20, China’s first cargo spacecraft, the Tianzhou-1, launched from Hainan province and two days later it docked with an orbiting space lab to conduct in-orbit refueling. This is another step in China’s plan to set up a permanently manned space station by 2022. While not necessarily a military development, the space station will probably also be used to conduct observations of military interest. Furthermore, setting up a permanently manned space station will increase Beijing’s international standing, allowing China to challenge the United States as the world’s main space power. However, China’s ambitions took a tumble on July 2, when the launch of China’s latest heavy-lift carrier rocket failed. The Long March-5 Y2, whose capabilities are almost on par with those of US rockets, is supposed to launch the core module for China’s future space station, bringing into doubt the government’s proposed timeline of beginning construction in 2019.
Global Security Architecture
Influence in the UN
- China continues to veto UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on Syria. Along with Russia, China vetoed a UN resolution to impose sanctions on Syria on February 28. The sanctions were supposed to address the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians. China’s ambassador to the UN Liu Jieyi said, “given that international investigations are still ongoing, it is too early to act now without hard evidence.” On April 6, however, Beijing did condemn new chemical attacks in the Syrian province of Idlib and announced its support for the launch of an independent UN investigation.
- UNSC resolution includes landmark Chinese concept for the first time. On March 17, the Chinese concept of “a human community with a shared destiny” was included in Resolution 2344 to renew the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan rephrased as “a community of shared future for mankind”. This is a concept that has been present in official pronouncements since at least 2007, but it was popularized by Xi, who linked it to his Belt and Road Initiative. The resolution also urged international efforts to strengthen regional cooperation and to implement China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in what is both a first and a major victory for China’s representation to the UN.
- China calls for UN and international support of Africa’s security capabilities. On March 23, Chinese envoy to the UN Liu Jieyi called for international support to build an African Standby Force and rapid reaction force. In 2015, China had already pledged to provide military aid worth USD 100 million to the African Union over five years towards this purpose.
- China takes UNSC presidency in July. Beijing has used its presidency of the UNSC to place issues of strategic concern to Beijing on the agenda, including the crises in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan.
- THAAD system triggers strong response in China. Beijing strongly opposed the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea in March and April. While this system is designed to defend South Korea from Pyongyang’s attacks, China argues that THAAD can probe deep into its territory, undermining its national security while doing nothing to prevent North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. The THAAD deployment strained relations between Seoul and Beijing. Although tensions were reduced after the election of new South Korean president Moon Jae-in in May, Beijing called off a trilateral meeting with South Korea and Japan in July, reportedly due to the controversy over this issue.
- ‘Double freeze’ initiative: China’s (and Russia’s) solution to the North Korea crisis. On March 8, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi announced China’s proposal to bring all parties back to the negotiation table and reach a peaceful solution to the issue. Beijing, publicly backed by Moscow after a joint statement of both countries’ foreign ministries on July 4, proposes that North Korea freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the US and South Korea stopping all large-scale joint military exercises. North Korean officials have indicated that Pyongyang would be willing to accept this arrangement but China has been unable to secure US and South Korean buy-in. In the meantime, China has also expressed support for and voted in favor of UNSC sanctions on North Korea as a response to Pyongyang’s ICBM tests in July.
- China joins nuclear powers in refusing to negotiate treaty to ban nuclear weapons. China, along with all other nuclear powers, including the United States, the UK, France and Russia, refused to participate in the negotiations that led to the adoption of a legally binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons on July 7 at the UN General Assembly.
- Beijing opposes India’s membership in Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). During the plenary meeting of the NSG in June, Chinese representatives continued to oppose India’s accession until New Delhi signs the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Accession to the NPT is normally seen as a prerequisite to enter the NSG but India has secured a temporary waiver from other members.
Global Cyber Governance
- China releases its International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace. Jointly released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cyberspace Administration on March 1, this document outlines China’s approach to global cyberspace governance and cooperation. It also emphasizes China’s goals of defending sovereignty, security and development interests in cyberspace cooperation.
- China and the UK agree to coordinate on cybersecurity. During the second UK-China High Level Security Dialogue, the UK’s national security adviser Sir Mark Lyall Grant, and Wang Yongqing, secretary general of China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the CCP, agreed to “regular coordination on cyber-security related issues in order to prevent cyber-commercial espionage and related transnational criminal activity,” according to Grant.