Academic journal article Asia Policy

A Global People's Liberation Army: Possibilities, Challenges, and Opportunities

Academic journal article Asia Policy

A Global People's Liberation Army: Possibilities, Challenges, and Opportunities

Article excerpt

For more than a decade, China has been developing the necessary expeditionary military capabilities to protect its interests beyond the East Asia region.1 As China assumes a larger role in world affairs, these interests have expanded substantially and increasingly require the capacity to secure investments and business ventures around the globe, including the millions of People's Republic of China (PRC) citizens living abroad, access to energy and other natural resources, and continued access to critical shipping lanes. To this end, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has begun to engage in missions far beyond its borders, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), noncombatant evacuation operations, counterpiracy operations, and the protection of sea lines of communication (SLOC).

While hardly surprising given China's global interests, the development of military expeditionary capabilities has raised concerns both in the United States and abroad about what role the PLA will play in global affairs and how that role may affect or constrain other countries. Examples include wariness about China's intentions following the announcement of a PLA logistics base in Djibouti, anxiety in New Delhi after PLA Navy (PLAN) submarines unexpectedly surfaced in the Indian Ocean, and challenges from the United States and others to Chinese naval patrols, conducted with some of the PLAN's most advanced combatants and submarines, in the farthest reaches of the South China Sea and associated disputed waters.2 Increasingly, China is able to shape the international security environment overseas with its military capabilities, posing both opportunities and challenges for U.S. leaders.

Under what conditions will China decide to employ military capabilities abroad, and will this development be positive or negative for the United States and the international order?3 Current research fails to answer this question adequately because of a narrow focus on related but fundamentally different classes of behavior. For example, there is a strong scholarly tradition that evaluates Chinese thinking on the use of force but focuses exclusively on regional and border-related disputes and mainly nontraditional operations overseas.4 Another research agenda focuses on China's evolving participation in UN peacekeeping operations, but these are cases in which Chinese national interests are not directly at stake and therefore may not be a valid comparison.5 Last, scholars and practitioners often focus on how China employs its military in specific territorial disputes, such as the South China Sea-but again, how and when China utilizes its military to promote claims close to its shores provides little insight into the leadership's willingness and ability to use these military tools far from China's shores in sovereignty issues.6

The topic may be understudied because Chinese involvement abroad outside the confines of UN peacekeeping operations is a nascent phenomenon and presents methodological challenges. There are few cases of Chinese expeditionary operations from which to derive causal and descriptive inferences, with the Gulf of Aden deployments and select noncombatant evacuation operations being the exceptions. A recent volume brainstormed what operational capabilities China is likely to develop for its expeditionary force by 2025 but stopped short of determining the factors that would shape its deployment.7

This article seeks to better understand China's preferences, its strategies to achieve preferred outcomes, and the strategic setting in which Chinese leaders will be making real-time decisions. To do this, the article evaluates five main drivers of Chinese security behavior: (1) the leadership's agenda, (2) domestic expectations for intervention, (3) the power-projection model China adopts, (4) the nature of the situation and impact on the country's security interests, and (5) global and U.S. receptivity to a larger Chinese role. …

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