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‘Protecting China’s Interests Overseas’ by Dr Andrea Ghiselli, Assistant Professor at Fudan University, offers a welcome vision on China’s rise. It builds on a wide range of Chinese-language literature and demonstrates how China’s military deployments move in tandem with the expansion of its economic interests abroad. In so doing, the book joins an emerging brand of works that deromanticise fears for a world takeover by China by putting the focus on the challenges the country encounters abroad, and the restraints that those circumstances impose on the behaviour of the party-state.1 The guiding principle to understand China’s international activities, Ghiselli contends, is that it puts its economic interests over military ones. As a result, even the military modernisation of its armed forces is subordinate to economic development (p. 49). The flag, as usual, follows trade.
By tracing how “Chinese capital and companies went to some of the most unstable regions of the world” (p. 71), Ghiselli masterfully moves the narrative away from a traditional military perspective to one that emphasises Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), economic over military security, and the securitisation of these interest frontiers abroad (expressed in material assets, the lives of Chinese nationals, etc).2 The book’s appreciation for internal political considerations in China and the attention that it puts on the different actors that operate within the Communist Party of China (CPC), is to be lauded.3 A personal preference would appreciate a institutional mechanisms within the party’s policymaking process itself.
From Chapter 1 onwards, the book greatly benefits from positioning current developments under Xi Jinping as building on those from previous administrations (p. 34). Ghiselli demonstrates how the party-state over several decades defined its interests, the threats to these, and their defence. Policy-wise, this trend is also visible from China’s ‘Go Global’, an endeavour that sought to move economic activity to the Western regions; to the even more international impetus under the Belt and Road Initiative (p. 75-79). By consequence, the Chinese military’s mission is extended beyond the mere survival of the party, to also include development interests and, later, the life and livelihood of the Chinese people themselves.
Chapter 2 traces how China’s interests abroad came to be incorporated with the missions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This process, as Ghiselli notes, was anything but straightforward under the party-army-state relationship of China. To understand China’s military power as moving with its growing economic clout is therefore mistaken, as the translation of these two sources of power is not easily done, neither institutionally nor in any regulatory sense. The Libyan Crisis of 2011 here emerges as a focal point for China’s growing interests abroad and the understanding that non-traditional security challenge had to be tackled. The evacuation of Chinese nationals, Ghiselli argues, figured as an “irreversible expansion of the scope of China’s interest frontiers beyond its territorial borders” (p. 59). That expansion, however, is stretching the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s budget, in monetary terms as in diplomatic capability.
Chapter 3, then, traces the beginning of China’s frontier interests to 1979, when the State Council set in motion of the progress of Chinese Overseas Direct Investment (ODI). Here, the lack of experience and supervision (p. 73) led to an eschewed progress that favoured State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and other co-operations under the State Economic and Trade Commission. The management of state assets had to compete with the requirement for relative autonomy for these firms to go, and compete, abroad.4 In terms of the present situation, Ghiselli sketches an interesting institutional framework of Chinese ODI shared between the ministries and commissions under the state, leading small groups within the party, as well as insurance companies and policy banks (p. 78).
Chapter 4 traces the problems confronted by professionals in the foreign affairs community, where knowledge production and policymaking navigate a fragmented and pluralised system (pp. 114-115). In an interesting discussion of the development of Chinese ambassadors and the evolution of their diplomatic style, Ghiselli also notes a contradiction between the weight of postings in countries that serve as promotion channels for positions within the party-state (of which the knowledge is great) and other countries in the Middle East and Africa, where the interests and risks are far greater but overall knowledge is far more limited (pp. 98-99; 116-123).
Chapter 5 looks into the party-state’s responsiveness to public opinion. Here, Ghiselli notes that it is “important to keep in mind that the protection of the country’s interest frontiers is an extremely new problem in Chinese politics” (p. 144), particularly after incidents Mali, Yemen, Syria, and Libya in which Chinese nationals were involved (p. 145-146), as well Chinese involvement in peacekeeping operations (p. 152) there. Ghiselli talks about “real traumas and imagined foreign policy” (p. 153) when defining the Chinese party-state refashioning of itself in a securitisation manner, as expressed in popular culture by movies as Operation Mekong, Wolf Warrior, and Operation Red Sea.
Chapter 6 traces the development of regulatory tools in China’s strategy towards defending its evolving interests abroad and how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is deployed in those MOOTW. Schematic representations of how these tasks evolved and expanded within China’s military doctrine from 2006 to 2009 to 2013 is traced in an interesting set of figures (p. 185; 188; 190). Chapter 7 shines a light on a crucial element that is not always given as much attention in previous discussions: the actual capabilities of China to deliver on its intentions in defending the country’s interests around the world. Held back by its own non-interference principle (instead delivering military force through the UN peacekeeping mandate), two further trends also emerged in China’s military abroad. A shift from ground forces-centrism within the PLA towards naval operations (p. 224) and the development of Djibouti from a logistical support base to full-fledged base now housing Chinese troops (p. 226-230).
Finally, the Conclusion notes that China’s global spread that it currently enjoys economically (and the military presence which necessarily accompanies it) is not a response to worsening US-China competition, but instead an expression of the requirement to defend its evolving interests against other, non-traditional security challenges. Rather than describing a grand scheme that is necessarily long-term and puzzlingly complex (but successful nonetheless), China’s policymaking emerges as much more reactive and pursuant to China’s national interests and driven by the “power of crises” (p. 242). Perhaps most interesting is the tension that is brewing around peacekeeping operations (which are more cost effective but domestically less sustainable than unilateral interventions) in a country that increasingly thrives on promoting military modernisation (p. 248).5
Axel Dessein is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Grand Strategy, King’s College London and a recipient of a 'The Leverhulme Trust' scholarship on vision of a post-Western world order. He holds a BA/MA in Oriental Languages and Cultures: China, from Ghent University in Belgium.
- See a previous review: Dessein, A. (2020), “The Maritime Silk Road: China’s Belt and Road at Sea by Richard T. Griffiths,” Strife Journal, 14.
- See Wuthnow, J. (2021), “A New Era for Chinese Military Logistics,” Asian Security
- See Kardon, I.; & Saunders, P. (2015, ed.), PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policymaking, Stanford Security Studies.
- See Jones, L.; Hameiri, S. (2016), “Rising Powers and State Transformation: The Case of China,” European Journal of Political Theory, 22 (1)
- See Fung, C. (2019), “Rhetorical Adaptation, Normative Resistance and International Order-making: China’s Advancement of the Responsibility to Protect,” Cooperation and Conflict.; Fung, C. (2019), “Providing for Global Security: Implications of China’s Combat Troop Deployment to UN Peacekeeping,” Global Governance.; and Fung, C. (2018), “Separating Intervention from Regime Change: China’s Diplomatic Innovations at the UN Security Council Regarding the Syria Crisis,” The China Quarterly.