How Chinese nationals abroad are transforming Beijing’s foreign policy

Authors: Jonas Parello-Plesner, Washington and Mathieu Duchâtel, SIPRI

The concept of ‘protecting nationals abroad’ (haiwai gongmin baohu) became part of the Chinese Communist Party’s priority list at the 18th Party Congress in 2012. But the idea caught the attention of China’s top leadership as early as 2004, with three major attacks against Chinese citizens in Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That China now systematically evacuates nationals from crises and war zones suggests China is becoming more inclined to support international responses when its own interests are at stake.

In March 2015, Chinese warships evacuated 629 Chinese citizens and 279 other foreign nationals from Yemen. This was a historic move for the Chinese navy and one of the first times that China had also rescued other foreign nationals. It demonstrated China’s growing capacity to protect its nationals abroad. China’s leading delegate to the 2015 Shangri-La dialogue, Admiral Sun Jianguo highlighted the Yemen evacuation as a reflection of China’s willingness to help others through military means. The recently released defence white paper, China’s Military Strategy, lists the ‘China’s overseas interests’ as a priority of the country’s national security policy.

Over the past decade, China has fundamentally changed its policy towards protecting nationals abroad and now systematically intervenes to help nationals in trouble spots. The ongoing evolution of this policy will have far-reaching consequences for the role of China as an international security actor. In 2011, China rescued more than 47,000 Chinese abroad — more in a single year than in the decades since the 1949 revolution. More than 35,000 of these were Chinese workers from Libya.

China faces a new global risk map. Chinese companies as well as workers and tourists are all over the globe. China is already in the top tier of foreign investors. Chinese companies are in hot pursuit of oil and natural resources abroad, particularly in Africa. Estimates put the number of Chinese nationals overseas at more than 5 million, including up to 2 million in Africa. China has left few regions of the world unexplored and is now promoting the construction of a ‘New Silk Road’, which will undoubtedly herald security challenges. Pakistan has already announced it is establishing a special military unit to protect Chinese workers that are due to arrive to build infrastructure for the economic corridor linking China and Pakistan.

There is now a tension in Chinese policy between the risk-averse Chinese government, which emphasises non-interference, and the interests of risk-prone state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and their large numbers of workers. In Angola, the number of Chinese is approximately 200,000. There are now several countries that — in terms of the number of Chinese citizens there — are ‘too big to fail’. This means that the business-oriented ‘go out’ strategy now has to be squared with broader strategic calculations. But how will this impact Chinese foreign policy?

In Pakistan and Afghanistan concerns about Chinese nationals abroad has led the Chinese government to engage beyond the government, normally the privileged interlocutor, but also with the Taliban and other extremist groups in Pakistan. On the Mekong River, China has become the local river cop, fielding law enforcement patrols following the killings of 13 Chinese sailors in 2011. China even considered employing a drone attack beyond its borders to kill the alleged culprit, a local Burmese drug lord.

Nowhere is China’s new approach more evident than in North and South Sudan. Chinese SOEs ventured exclusively for oil in pre-partition Sudan, but China was subsequently faced with attacks on its citizens and unwanted foreign-policy conundrums such as South Sudanese independence. China’s commercial and human presence in Sudan gradually led to a more proactive Chinese approach to securing national interests. Recently, China dispatched a combat battalion under a UN peacekeeping umbrella to South Sudan. China also secured the inclusion of a clause to protect foreign oil workers — most of whom are Chinese — in the mandate of the UN Mission in South Sudan.

The protection of nationals overseas will be a major driver of foreign policy change into the future, and it will continue to shape China’s approach to international intervention and power projection. As Chinese commercial interests and human presence abroad expands, the Chinese state apparatus is forced to follow suit. Studying China’s new risk map offers indications of how China may continue to behave on its path to great power status.

Beijing gradually accepted a responsibility to defend China’s nationals overseas. The acceptance of this responsibility came not as part of a great power strategy but through China’s commercial presence in weak and fragile states. The question of political risk and stability abroad has been thrust upon a China that prefers to shun involvement in international crises and the domestic politics of other nations.

China is more likely to lend stronger support for multilateral interventions if its own interests are at stake. If, for example, Angola — with its more than 200,000 Chinese nationals, huge Chinese investments and loans — were to face internal strife, China could suddenly be a key permanent member of the UN Security Council clamouring for an international response. The magnetic pull of these interests will define Chinese foreign policy in coming years.

Jonas Parello-Plesner is a diplomat and scholar, currently with the Danish Embassy in Washington DC. He previously worked for the European Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Dr Mathieu Duchâtel is Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and SIPRI’s representative in Beijing since 2011.

Jonas Parello-Plesner and Dr Mathieu Duchâtel are co-authors of the 2015 book China’s Strong Arm: Protecting Citizens and Assets Abroad.

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