A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Belt, Road, and Sword


China is steadily expanding its security presence and infrastructure in Asia and well beyond, a strategy shaped by Beijing’s global power ambitions. It‘s a reality that the West cannot afford to ignore.

© An Yuan/CNS via REUTERS

The attackers only managed to get as far as the gate to the Chinese consulate in Karachi: on November 23, 2018, three militants pulled up in front of the building and advanced, opening fire. Two police and two civilians were killed before Pakistani security forces shot dead the assailants. They were separatists from the restive province of Baluchistan, and they said they had a clear goal: to stop Chinese investments in the western part of their country.

Such militant attacks in Pakistan are nothing new to Western governments, who have been targets for decades. But the fact that Beijing, too, is now in the crosshairs signals a troubling new reality and shines a light on China’s growing presence in the region’s fragile security structure. The attack was a direct shot at China’s increasing economic influence, which has taken root in Pakistan as part of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It also highlights the need for China to boost its security infrastructure in the region. For years now, China has increasingly coupled its economic expansion with a robust security presence, offering military assistance and even putting its own forces on the ground—like in Afghanistan, where armed Chinese anti-terror units have accompanied the national army on patrols since 2017. Indeed, China has long displayed a willingness to deploy a wide variety of resources on missions: in the early 1990s, to improve its global image after the Tiananmen massacre, Beijing sent engineers, logistics experts, and doctors along on foreign operations. Beijing’s contributions to the United Nations’ Blue Helmet missions have been expanding since 2014 as well.

Promoting Security Cooperation

Today, the country is keen to position itself as a global power in security policy, and even become a security provider in some regions. It is a way not only to protect its own strategic interests, but also to prove its strength by protecting other nations from a vast array of threats—from natural disasters to shipwrecks, transnational organized crime, terrorism, and piracy.

In a speech to the National Security Commission in early 2017, President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of building up strategic capabilities, and since then Beijing has explicitly offered its services as a security partner within the BRI framework. In the past two years, the government has published two important strategy papers as well: in the BRI Vision for Maritime Cooperation (2017), China notably added security cooperation to its list of priorities, with a subchapter promoting China as a partner in disaster prevention and disaster relief, humanitarian operations, and the fight against crime – which would rely on the use of China’s own Beidou satellite navigation system. In the Arctic Strategy (2018), Beijing proposed the use of a “polar Silk Road” as a contribution to preserving peace and stability in the Arctic.

China has also increased its diplomatic engagement, supply of military goods, and military deployments. Thus, it has gradually taken on more responsibility by seeking to build trust through regional institutions, conflict mediation, and military diplomacy, and to play an important role in global conflict management. At the same time, China is equipping foreign armies to deal with transnational threats and even using its own troops to combat them.

A Military Diplomacy Offensive

Back in 2015, President Xi announced a new phase of Chinese military diplomacy. Through official visits, exchanges, joint exercises, and training, China has made clear it wants to influence the strategic thinking of other armies and actively participate in risk management. Xi’s ambition is also reflected in the state and party structures—the Office for International Military Cooperation, for example, is directly subordinate to the influential Central Military Commission.

Senior members of the Commission have significantly increased the frequency and reach of their foreign visits, and the Chinese navy has stepped up its visits of overseas ports as part of its anti-piracy task force. The People’s Liberation Army is actively networking with foreign armed forces; it trains Tanzanian officers in China and at a Chinese-funded military academy in Tanzania. In Germany, too, it conducted joint exercises for non-military operations with the Bundeswehr two years ago and launched similar exercises with ASEAN countries in 2018.

Institutional diplomacy is also key for China in the context of security. In 2017, Pakistan and India were officially brought on board the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an important regional political, economic, and security alliance. China had long blocked the accession of India and Pakistan, but then changed course. The organization has been unable to resolve even low-level disputes among its members—take the long-standing border dispute between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example—but nonetheless, the first joint participation of India and Pakistan in the SCO’s international military exercises in 2018 is a significant opportunity for building trust. At the same time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rattled NATO by flirting with the idea of joining the SCO, although few believe he will follow through.

China has also continued to expand its activities in the field of conflict resolution and mediation, particularly in countries along BRI trade routes. China became one of the most prominent participants in multilateral peace talks on Afghanistan, including the four- and six-nation talks with American and Russian representatives. Beijing itself stimulated trilateral talks with Pakistan and invited delegations of the Afghan government, but also the Taliban, to China. And during talks on Tehran’s nuclear program (JCPOA), China was a key player at the negotiating table.

As a mediator, however, Beijing has so far had little success. For one, it did not abide by UN directives, which recommend involving as many stakeholders as possible. And in many cases, China did not go far enough to actually resolve conflicts: in efforts to stop the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar, for example, Chinese negotiators met representatives from Bangladesh and Myanmar, but important parties were missing at the negotiating table and talks ended without rapprochement. Also, international trust in and reliance upon the Chinese People’s Liberation Army as a partner has not grown, despite Chinese shows of strength with new bases in the South China Sea and troops on the Doklam Plateau, the contested region near the border of India, its ally Bhutan, and China.

Growing Arms Exporter

China also wants to increase its political influence by supplying military goods and services. It has quickly become the third largest commercial arms exporter in the world. Commercial exports are primarily about profits and the development of the Chinese arms industry, but they are also central to China’s position as a security provider. Beijing is launching ever more modern weapons at very competitive prices and is ready to export even sensitive technologies like armed drones.

At the same time, China lures importing countries with cheap credit – the Afghan army has been receiving armaments from China since 2016, in addition to NATO assistance. These have so far consisted of military vehicles, handguns, and ammunition, not heavy artillery. China’s investment is, of course, in no way comparable to US and NATO’s role as central pillars of the Afghan government and military development. Still, in addition to the hardware, Beijing has delivered $70 million in payments aimed at bolstering Kabul’s fight against terrorism and instability.

Meanwhile, Iraq and Nigeria have bought Chinese drones for use against Islamist terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram. Liberia, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast received free marine equipment to fight piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, the Philippines procured weapons for the government’s action against IS-allied insurgents in the city of Marawi, Madagascar bought patrol boats, and the African Union’s Standby Force has been boosted by Chinese pledges of $100 million over five years.

The Chinese arms export boom does have its flaws. For example, it further fuels the Pakistani-Indian arms race, accelerates the spread of armed drones, and strengthens authoritarian governments. Myanmar, for example, has become China’s fourth-biggest customer and recipient of military aid since 2013 amid the brutal persecution and crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.

Boots on the Ground

The third prong in China’s strategy to establish itself as an international security heavyweight is the government’s own military operations and expansion of capabilities. China has made great progress in establishing its presence in its own backyard and beyond, although military capacity and supporting infrastructure are still in development.

By participating in search and rescue operations, disaster relief and evacuations, anti-piracy, and anti-terrorist operations, China’s leadership is also serving the rising expectations and growing economic interests of its own citizens and businesses. Chinese units participated in the search for the missing passenger aircraft MH370 and in humanitarian operations from Guinea-Bissau to Papua New Guinea. After relying on European aid for the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya in 2011, the Chinese navy successfully brought citizens from other countries back from Yemen in 2015 as well. Such success stories support the reputation of the Xi government, especially at home.

The People’s Liberation Navy has now gained more than a decade of experience in the fight against piracy off the Horn of Africa and is beginning to offer its services in the Gulf of Guinea; it has also contributed armed forces to UN peacekeeping operations over the last four years. China’s cooperation with other states in Blue Helmet missions and anti-piracy operations, at times alongside NATO member states, has helped forge trust and confidence. To secure all global shipping routes, however, is still far beyond the Chinese navy’s capabilities; the US navy still dominates in this area.

New Bases, New Equipment

Along the Afghan-Tajik border, meanwhile, NATO and Russia have remained the central security providers, in part because the local governments distrust China, and also because Beijing has been keen to avoid getting too deeply entangled in the volatile region. Beijing, however, uses Tajikistan as a transit and transport route. Reports have emerged that Beijing was engaging in joint anti-terrorist patrols with Afghani forces in Badakhshan Province, which borders China’s heavily Muslim Xinjiang province. For Beijing, securing Badakhshan is key to the wider stability in Xinjiang, but also Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Chinese government, which long hesitated before confirming the People’s Armed Police’s joint patrols with the Afghan army in Badakhshan, has been careful to emphasize that this was not a military mission. Still, in January 2018, the People’s Armed Police units operating there were put under Chinese military command.

Although Beijing has rejected possible involvement in building a base for the Afghan army in the northeast of the country, its growing involvement in Afghanistan is hard to ignore. NATO is skeptical about China’s presence in the country, partly because Chinese anti-terrorism policy runs counter to the Western approach of de-radicalization. In Xinjiang, even moderate Uighur Muslims suffer indefinite internment in huge re-education camps without trial, held on charges of terrorism.

China’s expanding radius for foreign missions is partly possible because of new equipment. The Chinese navy now has more ships than the US. The first aircraft carrier developed in China completed its maiden voyage in 2018. The People’s Liberation Army has commissioned a number of modern Chinese transport aircraft and helicopters. And the naval base in Djibouti, which opened in 2017, was China’s first overseas base; it’s intended to provide logistical support for operations in Africa and has been greatly expanded since 2018 with a new pier.

The base in Djibouti has become a symbol of China’s security and power projection ambitions. And plans for more military bases have sparked concerns in the West. This is particularly true for the construction of bases across the artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea. For Beijing, these bases are a key part of its BRI strategy. In the Pacific, China intends to build strongholds in countries like Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, on the grounds that they serve as logistical support for China’s space program despite strong objections from the US and Australia.

Shows of Strength, and Vulnerability

The Chinese government has all but given up its principle of non-interference, which used to be so central to its rhetoric. Instead the Chinese now meet with non-state actors as well. The country’s new role as a security provider is strongly driven by Xi Jinping’s ambitions, but also by the country’s vulnerabilities.

Becoming an active security player will continue to be curbed by China’s own caution. Beijing has little interest in wasting resources or jeopardizing its legitimacy through needless operations for which there is no support in Chinese society. It is also aware of its relative lack of operational experience compared to the US and Russia. A lack of trust from other countries has been a roadblock as well. In the future, growing international concerns over the rapidly expanding, modernized Chinese military could make joint projects more difficult. A lack of willingness to compromise on territorial disputes and Beijing’s clear support for Pakistan over India also present difficulties.

Nonetheless, China can no longer be neglected as a security provider, especially in regions of strategic importance to the BRI. It is already accepted by Russia as such in Central Asia. Beijing is offering its security services from Southeast Asia to Africa, and the West will not be able to ignore this new reality. NATO countries in particular will have to adapt to China as a cooperation partner on a case-by-case basis, but also as a security policy competitor.