PLA obliged to protect overseas interests

Updated: 2015-12-30 08:36

By Zhou Bo(China Daily)

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Chinese national Fan Jinghui was beheaded by Islamic State terrorists in November. Of the less than 10 Chinese citizens being kidnapped overseas for ransom, this one 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 the United Kingdom to conduct air strikes on the IS group's 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 trial.

PLA obliged to protect overseas interests

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

But that doesn't mean China can only express anger over such heinous acts of terrorism. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China's institutionalized authority and unequivocal attitude are already reflected in the UN resolution that called for combating the IS group using all possible means. And China will continue to wield its power at the UN to support military strikes on the IS 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 Uygur autonomous region, because it wants to curb separatists' activities in other parts of the country and sever their links with the IS group. About 1,000 Xinjiang separatists have reportedly joined the IS and quite a few others have tried to do the same using the South East Asia "route".

More importantly, China's People's Liberation Army will strengthen its overseas capacity, with the announcement of establishing a logistics support station in Djibouti and 8,000 standby peace keepers being the latest efforts in that direction. According to China's 2015 defense 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 Southeast 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 noninterference. And until now, this policy has best helped protect Chinese nationals overseas. About 100 million Chinese travel abroad each year and more than 1 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? Fan Jinghui was not the first Chinese to be kidnapped nor is he likely to be the last. In fact, after his brutal murder, three more Chinese nationals died in a terrorist attack in a hotel in Mali.

China hasn't been engaged in a war for more than three decades. And the next war for China may not be with a neighbor. 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 those of other countries. As China gains in overall strength, the distinction between its national interests and its international responsibilities will blur further.

The author is an honorary fellow with the Center of China-American Defense Relations, affiliated to the Academy of Military Science.

(China Daily USA 12/30/2015 page12)