China has long adhered to a principle of ‘non-interference’ in other states’ affairs. However, as more of its companies have been investing in projects overseas, and millions of its nationals are travelling abroad, Beijing is finding itself progressively involved in other countries – through the need to protect these interests and citizens.

Adelphi 451 cover

China has long adhered to a principle of ‘non-interference’ in other states’ affairs. However, as more of its companies have been investing in projects overseas, and millions of its nationals are travelling abroad, Beijing is finding itself progressively involved in other countries – through the need to protect these interests and citizens.

During the turmoil of the Arab Spring in 2011, China was compelled to evacuate more than 35,000 Chinese workers and expatriates from Libya, and later it led the hunt for the killers of 13 Chinese sailors in the Golden Triangle region of the Mekong River. In 2015, Beijing sent a combat battalion to join the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, where it has huge oil ventures. Its plans to construct a New Silk Road will mean new commercial endeavours to protect in Pakistan.

The shift in Chinese foreign policy towards a more interventionist approach abroad has not been the result of grand strategy, but an adjustment to unfolding events. The large risk appetite of state-owned Chinese business is inexorably drawing the Chinese state into security hotspots, and as China becomes a great power its people are openly calling on their government to protect compatriots caught in crises overseas, including via military means.

While much attention has focused on Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviour in disputed Asian seas, this book highlights another equally important area of change, with potentially far-reaching consequences for international security. 

‘The inherent complexity of China´s rise requires serious analysis of a range of issues. This detailed yet highly approachable volume unlocks an important but until now largely overlooked piece of this puzzle, Beijing’s mobilization in defense of its citizens and interests abroad. Through it a clearer picture of the direction and implications of China´s ascent materializes.’ Ana Palacio, former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank

‘This book adds greatly to our understanding of China’s complex and rapidly evolving engagement with the outside world. It presents a convincing thesis: that force of circumstance will oblige China to become a global power, regardless of its stated non-interventionist policy.’ Bill Emmott, author of Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade; and former editor in chief, The Economist

‘A really significant and innovative book, demonstrating the risks that accompany China investing and sending workers abroad, and the necessity of a more interventionist policy to protect them.’ Shi Yinhong, Governmental advisor and Professor of International Relations, Renmin University of China

China's Strong Arm was launched on Friday 29 May on the sidelines of the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue

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  • Introduction

    In March 2015, two Chinese frigates, the Linyu and Weifang, evacuated 629 Chinese citizens and 279 other foreign nationals from war-torn Yemen. This was a historic move for China, since it was the first time that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy had conducted such a non-combatant evacuation operation alone, and one of the first times that China had rescued other foreign nationals. It demonstrated China’s growing capacity to protect...
  • Chapter 1: China’s new global risk map

    When the Chinese Communist Party officially endorsed the ‘going-out policy’ in 2002 to encourage Chinese companies to invest overseas, the magnitude of the decision might not have been fully appreciated. More than a dozen years later, the strategic decision to support the international expansion of Chinese business has already reshaped the country’s threat perceptions and security interests. China is now a major-league foreign investor, with outward foreign direct investment (FDI)...
  • Chapter 2: Transforming Chinese foreign policy and institutions

    The protection of nationals abroad has steadily climbed the list of China’s foreign and security priorities. In 2012, it was enshrined as a concept at the 18th Party Congress. On a trip to Africa in May 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reiterated that it was a ‘priority matter for the state’ (guojia toudeng dashi). The year 2004 was an important turning point. In a few bloody months, 16 Chinese were killed...
  • Chapter 3: China’s ‘AfPak’ hinterland

    Afghanistan and Pakistan provided China with some early lessons in the vulnerability of nationals overseas. Two attacks in quick succession in summer 2004 – one in May in Gwadar, Pakistan, that killed three, and another in June in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 11 – were a clear wake-up call to government agencies in Beijing. Chinese security analysts have long worried that terrorist groups in the two countries might turn their attention...
  • Chapter 4: Murder on the Mekong: The long arm of Chinese law

     ‘10/5’ – as the mass murder of Chinese sailors on the Mekong River on 5  October 2011 is sometimes called in China – was one of the largest attacks on Chinese nationals outside the country. As such, it required a robust response by the Chinese government. Before the case was closed, this involved an unprecedented law-enforcement operation abroad, the first Chinese trial of foreigners for alleged crimes against Chinese citizens...
  • Chapter 5: International rescue: Beijing’s mass evacuation from Libya

    It was the time of the Arab Spring, the series of popular uprisings that rapidly toppled long-standing authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and sent Syria into a civil war that was still raging in 2015. Those events took the world and China by surprise. Beijing’s intention was to continue with business as usual, but the situation didn’t permit this.  When unrest and protests spread to President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt...
  • Chapter 6: China in deep in the oil-rich Sudans

    Although China has made great efforts to stick purely to business, the turbulent history of the Sudan region has gradually pulled it in diplomatically and politically. Sudan was an early target of China’s ‘going-out’ policy; here state-owned oil company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) made its first large international investment in the mid-1990s after sanctions on Khartoum had forced Western companies to leave. South Sudan, which gained independence from the...
  • Conclusion

    In the past decade, there have been several defining foreign-policy events for China in which it has found itself required to protect its nationals abroad. The need to evacuate Chinese workers from Libya in 2011 was one watershed, the murder of Chinese sailors on the Mekong was another and numerous conflict situations in Sudan provided yet more – as Beijing gradually accepted a responsibility to defend China’s nationals overseas. The acceptance...

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 think tank. The views expressed are his own.

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

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