A military base in Djibouti, growing contributions to UN peacekeeping operations, port calls to countries around the world, and joint exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean and the Baltic Seas: in recent years the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)has expanded its international footprint, and it has left no doubt that it plans to become a global security actor.
While Chinese troops have been involved in a number of operations beyond the Asia-Pacific region in recent years, including the PLA’s participation in the counter-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden since 2008 and its contribution to UN peacekeeping operations since the early 1990s, it wasn’t until about 2013– when Xi Jinping took office – that China’s military strategy shifted, as Beijing embraced a more globalized national security outlook.
This change in strategy is clearly reflected in the 2015 Defence White Paper, which outlined a new set of strategic tasks for the PLA. From what used to be a policy of “offshore defence” focused on defending Chinese territory and helping out with domestic security issues, the PLA shifted to a strategy of “active defence”, which involves safeguarding the security of China’s overseas interests and maintaining regional and world peace. This new posture highlights the increasingly international focus of the PLA’s mission, and it leaves substantial room for Beijing to deploy troops overseas in a range of situations and scenarios.
Xi Jinping re-emphasized the goal of turning the PLA into an international actor during his work report to the 19thParty Congress, held in October 2017. The CCP’s goal for the next few years, Xi said, is to“build the PLA into a world-class force that obeys the Party’s command, can fight and win wars, and maintains excellent conduct.” The ultimate objective is to achieve the full modernisation of the armed forces by 2035 and to turn the PLA into a world-class force by 2049, the 100thanniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
There are several driving forces behind this change of outlook and strategy. First, this shift in priorities reflects the domestic political changesthat have been taking place in China over the last few years. Since Xi came to power, Beijing has become more open and assertive about its ambition to become a great power and expand its influence in the international arena. Xi has even set a deadline for this process – by 2049 China must be “a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious." At the same time, China is also responding to the increasing exposure of its expanding overseas interests to the threats of transnational terrorism, civil unrest, and anti-Chinese sentiment, as well as to domestic expectations that Beijing will act to protect these interests. This is particularly the case now that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has picked up speed and has pushed growing numbers of Chinese citizens and companies into occasionally unstable countries.
However, and despite this change in policy and the new mandate for the PLA to become an international security player, the reality on the ground is changing only gradually. The PLA has clearly expanded its international presence since 2013, whether by opening China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti or by engaging in growing numbers of joint exercises with other militaries outside of China’s borders. But the PLA’s global activities still remain limited in both scope and duration and do not involve a significant presence of boots on the ground overseas. The PLA’s international presence is, for now, still mostly limited to military operations other than war in specific regions of Asia and Africa, where Beijing has the infrastructure and partnerships to support such missions.
This, however, is rapidly changing. Although China’s military still lacks the capabilities and logistical networks to sustain prolonged expeditionary operations far from its borders, not least because Chinese troops lack operational experience, Beijing has made clear that overcoming these barriers is a priority.
To address some of the issues, Beijing has launched a wide-ranging military modernisation drive to provide the PLA with the necessary capabilities to effectively project force abroad. These reforms involve a major restructuring of the PLA, meant to improve the military’s efficiency and warfare capabilities, as well as to strengthen the CCP’s control over the armed forces. Major steps so far include the demobilisation of 300,000 soldiers and replacement of the former military regions with theatre commands. The former four general departments under the Central Military Commission (CMC) were also split up into 15 smaller bodies that report directly to the CMC, and two new military services were created: the PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force. Furthermore, China’s military budget has almost doubled since 2010, reaching 1.1 trillion RMB in 2018, according to official figures. This financial support is allowing the PLA to rapidly develop and launch new capabilities that permit it to project power further away from China’s shores.
There is no denying that Beijing wants a combat-ready PLA that is seen as a world-class force, and it is acting to achieve this. PLA participation in international – often multilateral – operations, for instance, is providing Chinese troops with opportunities to gain experience and improve inter-operability with foreign militaries. However, and despite these more assertive and expansive activities by the PLA overseas, Beijing still officially upholds the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in other countries’ affairs, which underpin its foreign and security policies. Beijing has been slowly moving away from these concepts and becoming more comfortable with the idea of deploying the PLA overseas. For example, the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Law for the first time provided a legal mandate for Chinese troops to engage in unilateral counterterrorism actions overseas. But there has been no fundamental reversal of this blueprint. Beijing remains largely suspicious of unilateral interventions in third-party countries and is therefore unlikely to launch large-scale unilateral military operations far from China’s shores in the near future. It is important to note, however, that these principles do not apply to the Taiwan or South China Sea conflicts, as these regions are seen as Chinese territories by Beijing and therefore within its jurisdiction.
Xi Jinping’s priorities of turning China into a global power and making the PLA into a world-class force that can fight and win wars are here to stay. As a result, China will continue in the future to invest in the modernisation of the PLA and Chinese troops will continue to operate overseas. This will allow the PLA to gain operational experience while also enabling Beijing to respond to the growing threats against its interests and citizens abroad, as well as to domestic pressures for the government to respond. Additionally, this new strategy will allow China to enhance its standing in the global security arena, to present itself as a responsible global power and to attempt to shape global norms. However, and despite its rhetoric, China’s actions are mostly driven by domestic interests and Beijing is, for now, neither willing nor able to take on all the security responsibilities of a major power.