New Leaders Forum

The PLA Temptation

Is the Chinese military’s assistance in evacuating citizens from Libya a precursor to future missions overseas?

By Matt Anderson for

The dynamics surrounding Libya’s civil war are significant for many reasons. One development in particular that caught the world’s attention was China’s acquiescence to the UN resolution approving the intervention to protect civilians.

A number of explanations have been offered for why China seemingly abandoned its sacred non-interference policy, and the possible repercussions that decision may have on future Chinese foreign policies. However, lost in this argument has been the potentially greater threat to China’s conventional interpretation of non-interference.

As the situation in Libya continued to deteriorate, the ever-more capable People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed military assets on a mission to help evacuate 36,000 Chinese nationals from the war-torn country. This deployment demonstrated the new capabilities of the PLA, which successfully conducted its most far-flung mission to date. But more important than what capabilities were demonstrated could be the purpose for which they were used. 

From ‘civis romanus sum’ in the times of ancient Rome to Lord Palmerston’s declaration that British subjects would be protected by their government no matter where they were, powerful states have sought to provide extraterritorial protection. This also applies to the United States, with its forward-deployed expeditionary forces often used to evacuate US citizens from conflict zones. As it demonstrated in Libya, China is now capable of this task.

The implications for the PLA are great as more Chinese nationals fan out across the globe to pursue business ventures, often to conflict-prone areas. The precedent established for China in Libya will likely force the PLA to act more often to protect Chinese nationals living abroad, and the Chinese population has for its part seen that the PLA is now capable of these operations, and could come to demand them in the future. An article in the official Xinhua news agency hailed the mission as evidence of ‘the people first-nature of government.’ The broad acceptance of the operation, along with Chinese society’s growing awareness that its military possesses such capabilities, could influence Chinese foreign policy profoundly. 

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One important question in this matter is what exactly constitutes ‘Chinese.’  The Xinhua piece concluded:

‘At this very minute, all the overseas Chinese would keep in mind: though thousands of miles apart, China — a prosperous, stable and strong homeland — is always their safe haven linking them by hearts.’

It’s the definition of ‘overseas Chinese’ that needs clarification. Does this term only apply to Chinese citizens who have recently emigrated, or does it also encompass the citizens of other nations with Chinese ancestry?  The term ‘overseas Chinese’ has different connotations for different people.  To some, it’s only those Chinese nationals who currently live abroad.  But some inside China have also used it to refer to nationals of other countries with Chinese lineage. 

In addition to the recent droves of émigrés representing China’s global business interests, large numbers of ethnic Chinese make up diaspora communities throughout the world.  Southeast Asia is host to many such communities, and these disproportionately affluent groups are still the cause of much resentment and paranoia among their non-Chinese neighbors.

The anti-Chinese Indonesian riotsin 1998 are only one example of the tensions between ethnic Chinese and their Southeast Asian compatriots. Overt animosity has gradually subsided and the Chinese communities continue to assimilate to their host societies. However, tension still exists under the surface and it’s always possible that another round of ethnic strife could break out. In the past, exogenous shocks like the 1997 financial crisis or the Maoist policies supporting communist insurgencies stoked anti-Chinese sentiments. In the absence of these external catalysts, the societies of Southeast Asia found a way to co-exist, though the amity is largely superficial as mistrust and resentment are still rampant. But the resurgence of maritime disputes, or just general apprehension about a rising China, could serve as a spark for renewed outbursts.

The possibility of Chinese military intervention in response to violence against ethnic Chinese in the region is currently minimal — China would be more likely to rely on its considerable economic and diplomatic capabilities to ensure that regional governments take sufficient steps to protect ethnic Chinese. However, given the present state of tense diplomatic relations, and the rise of nationalism, patience will already be wearing thin if an outbreak of ethnic-driven violence were to occur. If news of violence against ethnic Chinese were to spread to the increasingly nationalist Chinese media, then it would be hard for policymakers to appear indecisive given the temptation that using a more capable PLA poses for Chinese leaders. 

It’s under these tense circumstances that an armed intervention akin to the US evacuation from Grenada or the failed rescue of Americans from Iran in 1979 could be more likely than a neutral evacuation of Chinese nationals from conflict zones. Improbable as it now seems, the threat of this type of move is another reason to worry about relations between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors. 

Matt Anderson is a Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS.