China’s Ground Forces
For the missions considered within the timeframe of this analysis, SOF and PLAN Marines are the most relevant ground forces. Their roles might include securing airfields and ports, and protecting evacuation operations. Putting boots on the ground abroad for virtually any mission outside the context of a UN peacekeeping operation is a bridge China has not yet crossed and would likely only be prompted by an extremely serious provocation—such as large-scale anti-Chinese violence in a country with many PRC expats.
China is gradually building up a cadre of soldiers with significant international operating experience gained through participation in UN Peacekeeping operations, many of which take place in locations and security environments like Congo and Sudan, which are similar to areas where the PLA might actually have to help protect an evacuation of Chinese citizens in the future.The country’s 2010 Defense White Paper stated that as of December 2010, it has dispatched 17,390 military personnel to 19 UN peacekeeping missions. In February 2011, China had 1,878 troops participating in UN peacekeeping missions, according to the UN.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Bottom Line
China’s expeditionary military capabilities are currently limited, but set to grow significantly in coming years, as will Beijing’s propensity to use them to protect PRC citizens and economic interests abroad. While the PLA is decades from having US-style expeditionary forces capable of sustained high-intensity combat (if it even wants to go that route), the potential for more regular and capable Chinese military deployments to distant portions of the South China Sea, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean,and Africa is now real.
Diplomatic engagement needs to incorporate discussions to assess how China intends to use its growing power projection abilities and also explore ways to de-conflict Chinese expeditionary operations and those of other militaries in strategic regions like Africa and the Middle East. China’s developing expeditionary capabilities make it a more useful partner for cooperation on non-traditional security issues and the United Statesshould try to increase discussions on this topic with its Chinese partners, both bilaterally and in multilateral forums.
Gabe Collins is the co-founder of China SignPost and a former commodity investment analyst and research fellow in the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute.