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China’s protection of its overseas interests is becoming increasingly complex

The evacuation of Chinese citizens from Viet Nam in May 2014 and a possible new evacuation from Iraq in the next few days are just two recent examples which demonstrate that, for China, protecting its overseas interests is becoming an increasingly complex challenge. A new SIPRI Policy Paper, launched today, outlines this challenge within the context of China’s traditional policy of non-interference in other nations’ affairs, which is also coming under increased domestic scrutiny.

Chinese foreign policy is slowly shifting away from a strict interpretation of non-interference, towards a pragmatic and incremental adaptation to new challenges to China’s globalizing economic and security interests. Although there has always been a degree of flexibility in Chinese foreign policy regarding non-interference, even during the Maoist period, the principle has by and large remained a key guideline for diplomatic work and a major rhetorical tool. However, over the past decade, the globalization of Chinese economic and human presence has led to a debate on the extent to which non-interference is serving the national interest of China.

Non-interference continues to receive strong rhetorical support from China and is believed to be of great significance with respect to the protection of China’s ‘core interests’, particularly on issues related to state sovereignty, territorial integrity and the socialist political system. The mainstream Chinese academic community still maintains that the benefits of further adherence to non-interference outweigh the potential costs of a major policy change. The main answer to new overseas challenges has been pragmatic adaptation and growing flexibility in the application of non-interference.

There are already many signs of adaptation of China’s foreign policy to protect the country’s energy interests in politically unstable or crisis areas. China has diversified its diplomatic outreach and has attempted to mediate between conflict parties—as clearly demonstrated in China’s evolving approach to the conflicts between and within Sudan and South Sudan—although so far with limited success. At the same time, China has also strengthened the risk assessment, crisis response, corporate social responsibility and political insurance capacities of its national oil companies. More radical approaches, especially the use of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to protect energy assets abroad, seem unfeasible in the short-to-medium term.

Another area of rapid adaptation of China’s foreign policy has been the protection of nationals abroad, which has emerged as a diplomatic priority for China during the past decade. The number of Chinese individuals travelling or residing overseas has grown so rapidly that Chinese Government agencies lack accurate statistics in many countries. Protecting increasingly large numbers of nationals overseas could potentially shift Chinese foreign policy away from non-interference but, so far, China has preferred institutional adaption and capacity building. Additionally, in major emergencies, China has gradually accumulated experience in conducting non-combatant evacuation operations. However, the sustainability of this approach is likely to be called into question by the growing involvement of armed actors, including the PLA, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and potentially private security companies.

There is still a degree of uncertainty regarding whether China will continue on the path of pragmatic adaptation within the non-interference framework. The possibility of a dramatic policy change cannot be entirely discarded, as unforeseen events could precipitate change. China’s foreign policy could also strictly remain within the boundaries of non-interference. Its ultimate strategic choice will certainly have far-reaching effects on global governance and international security. For states seeking greater international security cooperation with China, this ongoing transformation creates new challenges and opportunities.